Add drama to your portraits using off-camera flash

Give your photos the edge

Most of us have probably used side-lighting in our photography before, even if we didn’t necessarily do so intentionally. We get someone to stand near a window and look at the camera, and the light falls across their face. Or we put a flashgun up to one side so only half their face is lit, and the other is in shadow.

In this technique we’re keeping the same concept, but tweaking the position for a more dramatic result. We’ll position our model so that they’re a few feet away from the light source and closer to the camera, resulting in a more shadowy face and a harder edge to the profile. On this shoot we’re emphasising the wonderful shapes and curves that are created with this pleasing mix of side-lighting and backlighting. It’s simple once you get set up, so let’s take a look at where we need to position everything…

Step-by-step: Take sides

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1. Set up the flash

Place your light a few feet away from the camera, aimed towards the right of the frame. It doesn’t matter what kind of light source you use; we’re using a single Speedlight which is being fired into a silver umbrella for diffuse lighting. We set our Speedlight to a quarter power.

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2. Remain in the dark

The background needs to be dark to make the model’s face stand out. Putting our model, Jennifer, in front of a white wooden backdrop would reduce the effect of the white highlights around the edge of her face when posing. We’ve used a black fabric backdrop, instead.

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3. Position your model

Ask your model to stand directly in front of the light, looking into it. To get that side-lit effect, have them take a step or two towards the camera. We got Jennifer to move approximately three feet from the softbox to harden the light on the profile of her face. 

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4. Add a flag

To stop the light from spilling onto our background, we’re using a flag set up between the light and the backdrop. A simple piece of black card is sufficient to block the light from the camera, just make sure it’s not reflective on the other side or it may throw light onto the backdrop.

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5. Work in manual

With the model in place, set the camera to manual mode, dial in the flash sync speed (1/200 sec in our case) and an ISO of 100. We also set an aperture of  f/5.6, which ensured crisp focus from the model’s nose to the back of her head with our 70-200mm lens.

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6. Wrap the light

You can now vary the quality of the light without having to change a thing. Move your model back towards the light and you’ll notice the light wraps around more of their face. By moving the model towards the camera, away from the light, you’ll get a harder edge to the profile.

Top tip: shoot from behind

If you’re happy with shooting into the light, try shooting from behind the model. It’ll be tricky to get right, but you’ll have a strong backlit shot, with some flaring of the light in the background.