As photographers, we’re ingrained to look for light-filled locations to take crisp and well-exposed photos. And as photographers…we often leave the camera untouched when we don’t find that kind of light! However, all you need is a small pocket to work with and a willingness to embrace low light photography, low key exposures and, sometimes, hard light shadows.
The result? Really dynamic and dramatic imagery.
We’ve gathered a handful of images and tips to inspire you to seek out less light (crazy, I know!!) and really play with it for a more dramatic, dark and moody style…
As beginners, we’re always taught to avoid hard light because it’s harsh and unflattering to our subjects. But look for interesting patterns in pockets of light to level up your compositions.
Expose for the brightest part of the scene so you don’t blow your highlights and let the shadows wrap around your subject and fall away.
Related: Shadow photography – Embracing Hard Light
A tip for shadow photography… use a slightly narrower aperture than you’d usually use for portraits to get nice and sharp shadows. For a shot like this, start with around f/3.5 and experiment.
Related: How to Shoot in Manual Mode
Don’t avoid small pockets of light just because the light will fall unevenly over your subject’s face when you place them in it. In this low light photo, it’s not jarring or unflattering and, in fact, has added interest. Also, note the shadow behind her, adding an extra layer to this beautiful capture.
The light in this shot is coming from higher up than Movern’s subject, which has illuminated her right eye and created a fabulous triangle-shaped splash of light on her right cheek (known as a Rembrandt’s triangle).
Related: Black and White Aesthetic – Capturing Mood in Monochrome
Doorway light can be one of the best (and most unexpected) sources of soft light for portraits. Learn what time of day you get soft light streaming in through your door. Then the next time all the planets align… pop someone in it! We love the detail, texture and storytelling element of this gorgeous shot taken by Morvern.
One of the best things about doorway light is when you position your subject facing the light, and you position yourself with the door and light behind you, the darkness beyond creates a perfect backdrop from which your subject can pop.
Related: Doorways for Natural Light Portraits
The same applies to windows. Those little pockets of light they create in a dark room is enough to illuminate your subject for a dark and moody look. The difference between this shot and the one above is simply the position of the camera. In the shot above, I’m standing outside the doorway with the light behind me. In the shot below, Morvern is standing in the shadows with the light at camera right, illuminating a much smaller pocket. If she’d stood outside the window and shot in with the light behind her, her daughter and the room would have been illuminated a lot more, resulting in a look more like the image above.
Trying to shoot low light photography but got reluctant toddlers or kids who never.stop.moving long enough to take a good shot? Give them something to do.Related: A Fun Portrait Project with a Toddler
When you side light your subject with window light in a dark or low lit room, you create beautiful directional shadows which provide more dynamic and dramatic light.
Related: Easy Dramatic Light Portraits
I’m the first to admit I avoid taking low light portraits of my kids indoors at night when I need to use artificial light sources. Overhead light bulbs are the same as shooting photography in the full midday sun as they create the same kind of shadows — but worse! This is because they also cause some horribly funky white balance issues.
But try lighting them using a source that’s down lower, such as a lamp around eye level, with a low wattage bulb so you can avoid really jarring shadows.
If you have some west-facing windows, set up an activity next to the window, then wait until the last moments before sunset to grab some indoor silhouette shots.
Related: How to Take Silhouette Photos
Backlight your subject in a dark room and look for halos as the light catches the edges of their hair and features.
Related: Surprising Ways to Use Backlight in Photos
Low light pockets aren’t limited to the indoors. If you want to shoot beautiful landscape photography, head outdoors just before sunset and look for those long warm shadows on the ground. In this shot below, Kirsty’s subject is spotlighted in the brightest part of the sun’s last rays. If they were anywhere else in the scene, she’d either have to blow out the brightest part of the image in order to expose him correctly, or underexpose him to avoid blow outs.
Related: Golden Hour Photo Tips
Make the most of those very last rays and use backlight to take a beautiful rim light portrait. Position yourself and your subject so the sun is directly behind them and look for the light catching the edge of their hair.
Nature can provide an opportunity for moody portraits without even trying. Pockets of light are pretty much all you’ll find in wooded areas, and they make for beautifully textured and natural spotlights for your subject to pop! Here’s a tech tip too… use a slightly narrower aperture than you would normally to bring out the texture in the surrounding foliage. You could capture a shot like this taken at around f/4.5 and still get a beautifull blurred background.
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