CAPTURE & CREATE ATMOSPHERIC PORTRAITS
Photography week|September 16, 2021
From lighting to editing, learn how you can add drama to your people pictures

Atmosphere is a term that’s often used to in landscape photography, but it rarely gets a mention in other genres. That being said, every photograph has an atmosphere, whether it’s obvious or not. Talking about atmospheric portraits conjures up a wealth of visual cues – think low lighting, soft blurry focus, dramatic shadows and added textures. Creating atmosphere is all about tweaking the tone and mood of your environment through exposure and other factors to make your portraits more engaging; think about images that stay with you, and it’s rarely just the subject matter. Generating atmosphere involves making conscious creative choices that enable the viewer to share in the ambience of the scene. Even if you’ve got a striking face to work with, it’s important you know how to get the best out of both your model and your environment.

In this feature we’ll look at what’s needed to create and capture faces that evoke feelings in the viewer. We’ll start as you’d expect, by covering the quality and quantity of lighting sources both indoors and in nature. Next, discover how posing can add drama to your scenes, then finish off the journey in the digital darkroom to tone up images. Atmosphere refers to the pervading tone or mood of a creative work, but what marks the difference between an atmospheric portrait and a normal face-on shot? Read on to find out…

USE LIGHT FOR DRAMA

Learn how to utilise soft light, contrast and strong shadows

We hear it all too often, but considered and controlled lighting is the crux of all good photography. Atmospheric portraits are no different, and the key to lighting them is to look for ways to make an impact without overdoing things.

One simple approach is to harness the natural beauty of window light. Larger light sources create softer light, and windows yield a good balance between shadows and highlights. To add mood, have your subject turn away from the window, so that one side of their face is illuminated and the other is thrown into deep shadow. The directional light will create a more dramatic look, which can be taken further by partially pulling across curtains or blinds. North-facing windows are ideal, as bright sunshine produces harsher results. Use aperture priority mode and a wide aperture such as f4, taking an initial shot without any exposure compensation. If you’re finding the lit side of your subject is overexposed, dial-in about -1.0 EV of compensation and reshoot. Consider the angle of the light hitting your subject, and if the window isn’t very high, have them sit down so the light comes from above rather than below them.

Continuing to rely on sunlight, backlighting subjects is another option. Golden portraits that feature sunrays and rim lighting drip with atmosphere of a more ephemeral nature, and you’ll need to time your shoot for around 30 minutes before and after sunset. Position the sun behind your subject, and work with a longer focal lens such as a 70-200mm to separate them from the backdrop. When shooting directly into the sun, it’s best to use a lens hood to reduce haze. Switch to spot metering and meter for your model’s skin tones so that you expose correctly. Alternatively, purposely underexpose them to create depth and shadows across the face and a low-key look. Avoid including open sky in the frame, as this will blow out and distract the eye’s attention away from your subject.

WORK WITH WEATHER

Shake up your shooting environment to include street lights, mist and fog

The potential for adding atmosphere presents itself in all conditions. In the same way as landscape photography, dramatic portraits can be made in mist and low light. While overcast cloud acts as a flattering natural softbox for your subject, bear in mind that scenes in fog are more dimly lit, and you’ll need to adjust the exposure accordingly. Besides heading out in bad weather, you can add variety to your results by changing the times at which you shoot. Steer clear of midday light and embrace low-angle sun, the glare of streetlights and the prevailing dark of night-time.

TIMED WELL Low-angle sun will often create flattering light. Here, the foliage produces dreamy, dappled patterns across the face

MIST AND RAIN By shooting in falling rain and backlighting her subject, photographer Taya Iv (500px.com/ tayaiv) has created a beautiful mood in this shot

Wherever you’re shooting, make sure you’re aware of the effect that light has on sculpting facial shapes. If you’re a familiar studio visitor, you’ll have come across the terms short and broad lighting. A short lighting setup is the more dramatic and slimming of the two, whereby the side of your subject’s face further away from the camera is illuminated by the key light. For example, if your subject was looking to the left of the camera, you’d place the light to the left of the camera.

Extreme contrast can be generated by placing the main light directly at your subject’s side for a split lighting effect. One half of their face is illuminated, while the other is thrown into darkness. A speedlight can be used to play around with the direction of artificial light too, so don’t limit yourself to a studio environment.

If the light you’re presented with doesn’t generate the right mood, modify and reposition it to better suit your needs. This is where creativity comes in, so research and practise ways to control the spread of the beam. A gobo (go-between object) is a light modifier that goes between your light source and your subject. It can be a stencil or shape cut to fit into your lighting, used to block the light, diffuse it or even colour it. For example, you could cut long rectangles in a sheet of card and place it in front of your flashgun to give the illusion that the light is passing through a blind. A gobo can be used to create a variety of moody lighting effects, and the principles are the same no matter what shape your gobo is. To really step up the cinematic effect, add in artificial fog to define the shafts of light as they pass through the gobo.

Learning to ‘see’ light is an important part of conveying feelings and mood. A shaft of light or pattern across the face will conjure up narratives and stories that visually entice the viewer. As a very general rule, the moodiest portraits have more shadow than not, as this adds a level of mystery to the composition. If in doubt, stick to one main light source and experiment from there.

FILTER LOW SUN Filtering the light through trees or foliage will enable you to cut back on haze

SHOOT THROUGH Gabriela Tulian (www. gabrielatulian.com) backlit this young girl, and included lens flare for added character

RIM LIGHTING When the sun is setting, low-angle light will wrap around the edges of your subject

ROOM TO BREATHE Experiment with a longer focal lens such as a 70-200mm

CONTROL THE LIGHT

Discover how the strength, angle, height and position of light makes all the difference

HARD LIGHTING Harsh light (without diffusion) has little transition between light and dark areas of the face. It creates drama, and can be created with midday sun and direct flash.

SOFT LIGHTING Light that’s diffused or textured can still ooze with mood. Use a softbox, curtains or blinds to soften natural light for a shadowy, pensive portrait.

SHORT OR BROAD Short lighting generally creates a narrower, more flattering portrait. To achieve this, position the key light so that it illuminates the narrow side of the face.

HIGH AND LOW The height and angle of light dictates how shadows fall on and shape the subject. With a Rembrandt lighting setup, the main light is purposely lower to create drama.

GO LOW-KEY

Take control of the exposure and use spot metering to create shadows

BE BOLD Embrace rather than avoid intense shadows. Here, they’re the key element of the composition.

TAKE POSITION Remember, the key thing here is to aim to light your subject from one side of their face.

PARTIAL READINGS Evaluative metering mode would have compensated for the dark shadows and rendered our subject too brightly here.

1 WHERE TO SHOOT In a darkened space, turn your subject towards a large window or lamp so that only one side of their face is lit.

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