Dramatic Portrait Lighting

A dramatic portrait of a buddhist monk in luang prabang, laos

A dramatic portrait of a buddhist monk in luang prabang, laos

Beautiful monk lit with dramatic side lighting, Luang Prabang, Laos 

Here's an old favorite from my photo archives. The image features a Buddhist monk who I've lit with side lighting for dramatic effect. We can outline the advantages of side lighting as follows:

Enhance Shape

Whether it be portraits, landscape or architectural photography the application of side light is a great way to bring out shapes (e.g. heads, rocks, architectural elements) within the image.

Enhance Texture

Likewise hair, ache, aged and wrinkled skin; grasses, sand and tree bark; and rough building surfaces are enhanced in portrait, landscape and architectural photography.

I photographed this kindly monk in the temple town of Luang Prabang, Laos. In fact he's standing on the doorstep of one of those temples.

The Approach

The light was illuminating one side of his face from a fairly extreme angle. As the light was bright the resulting shadows on the darker side of the face photographed very dark indeed. To avoid a split light effect, with one side of the face bright and the other very dark, I simply gestured to the monk to turn his face towards the light. By doing so the light was able to wrap around (the technical term) past his nose and illuminate much of the darker side of his face by pushing the shadows back.

The Result

You can see how side lighting has enhanced the shape of the subject's head, which I deliberately placed against the darker open doorway, and brought out delicate textures on the monks face, robe and the woodwork on either side of the frame.

What Would You Do?

It's an achievement to have the courage to approach a stranger and ask permission to make their photograph. Every time your subject says yes you have the opportunity to make a beautiful, life affirming photo. It's a win for all: the photographer, the subject and the viewer.

So why diminish your chances of success by not taking control of the situation and providing the necessary direction (e.g. please stand here, could you turn your head this way, etc) to make a truly compelling photo? Is it a lack of confidence in your abilities as a photographer or fear of rejection?

Great photographs are made by photographers who simply have no choice. They recognize the opportunity presented to them and are motivated by both the experience and the potential result. The alternative, to make a photo that is below standard, is simply not acceptable.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru