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Dramatic 3 Speedlite Portrait Using Yongnuo YN-E3-RT Controller and Canon Speedlites

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Dramatic lighting is awesome! I am fascinated by dramatic styles like Joel Grimes and Chris Knight. Here's how I created dramatic portraits at home with three speedlites and no fancy studio.

Before I continue, I want you to know that Speedliter's Blog is an Amazon Affiliate. At not cost to you, I may earn a commission from items you purchase from Amazon using the links in this blog. Thanks for using our links and supporting Speedliter's Blog!

GEAR: My main camera body right now is the Canon 6D. It's a work horse, it's full frame, and it's affordable compared to it's big brother the 5D Mark IV. When shooting a headshot or portrait at this distance, I choose a lens between 50 and 85mm. This allows some breathing room between myself and the subject. In this case I went with the 85mm 1.8.

I wanted to create a dark studio looking background without the expense and work of the studio. To accomplish this I shot these photos at night and used fast shutter speed and smaller (higher number) aperture to darken the background. If any parts of furniture or house appear in the photo, I can darken them out in Lightroom later.

I used three Canon speedlites controlled by the Yongnuo YN-E3-RT. Canon's ST-E2 flash controller works fine, but the Yongnuo version is much cheaper at $80 vs Canon's $275 at the time of this writing. It also has red focus assist lights to help with focusing in the dark. To learn more about controlling off camera flashes, check out this post. I used two bare (no modifiers) Canon 430EX III RT speedlites as my side lights and one Canon 600EX-RT as my key light. The key light is shooting through a 40" PBL Umbrella Softbox for a slightly softer light on the face.

SETTINGS: For studio style portraits I keep my aperture around 7-9. This aperture will create a sharp photo and is usually around the lens's "sweet spot" for sharpness. For this shoot I needed things a little lighter and used 5.6, but higher would have been better. 1/250 second shutter speed is ideal for sharp portraits, but you can work anywhere from around 1/125 and faster. You should always keep your ISO as low as possible to limit noise. For these photos I kept my ISO around 100-200. When choosing my flash settings, I adjust until it looks good! I photographed my background alone first adjusting the power until it was dark. After my subject was in place, I adjusted the side and key lights until I got the dramatic look I wanted.

TIPS: Move your key light around until you get the lighting on the face just right. You can also adjust the zoom of the lens if you don't want it to fill the whole umbrella or softbox. By zooming your speedlite in, the amount of your umbrella that actually gets used will become smaller and the lighting will appear more dramatic.

Try different positions and expressions with your subject. Every person is different, so be flexible and shoot while trying different poses and expressions.

EDITING: I used Adobe Lightroom to do most of the editing here and Adobe Photoshop to do some skin touch up. In Lightroom, I used the adjustment brush to remove reflections on the glass wall behind my subject to leave the dark, black background. Check out this post to see how I use burning and dodging techniques to isolate my subject in Lightroom. See the before and after photo below for a visual. I also increased clarity and contrast to add the drama. If you want to get crazy with Photoshop, here is where I learned to use frequency separation to touch up skin. If you're curious about my workflow, I edited the background in Lightroom, moved to Photoshop for skin touch up, then back to Lightroom for final changes to the whole photo. To move from Lightroom to Photoshop, select Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop. To move back to Lightroom, just save your work in Photoshop (just save, not save as).

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

LIGHTING: You can create interesting portraits with one light, as I show you in this post. But you can add drama and grittiness by adding side, kicker lights to paint hard light on the edges of your subject's face. Hard light is most dramatic, so you don't need any special light modifiers or soft boxes. Just use the bare flash.

We tried a few different styles of sunglasses. While not as dramatic as the others, these have a fun, lifestyle look. I also gave this photo a matte finish. Check out this post to learn more about adding a matte look to your photos.

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

For this photo I draped a faux fur blanket over my subject's shoulders and puffed up the shoulders just a bit. I told him to laugh like his wife just passed gas. While not mature, fart jokes are very effective on some subjects.

SETTINGS: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

I hope this post helps you create awesome, dramatic portraits. Feel free to ask questions in comments below!



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