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Drama Lighting Using a 1-Light Setup


Composing drama series does not mean to create dusky sceneries but rather working with well-chosen light/shadow areas and corresponding accents.

Imagine a Hitchcock movie or any neo-noir tale. Something darker, scarier, more suspenseful… yet dazing bewitching. Photographs rich in contrast, black-and-white in feel, at least not very colorful, not very glossy, nothing trendy. Drama stands for something visually dramatic.
Messages can be sexy lascivious, contain round forms, and be strong and bold in emotions. A drama/noir setup most definitely flatters a woman’s shape.

What Makes a Drama/Noir Look?

Drama Noir Lighting - Sexy Women Photography by Dan Hostettler - LOOK

Look Cheat Sheet for Your “Drama Noir”-Style Shoot
  1. Beautifying & Styling: The overall feeling and visual forms are the opposite of fluff, soft and round. Exact patterns, lines and shapes are needed to perceivably support the foundation of a dramatic feel. Colors are to be applied rather subtle, but a strong lipstick color, clear eye lines and a defined hair style are key components. Outfits have clear forms and no distracting foofaraw.
  2. Lighting: A single light source with a harsh, limited and bold beam. A lot of shadow areas dodge around the subject but the model itself is clearly emphasized. The model’s forms always create well-defined shadow casts.
  3. Posing: Play and expressions have to be strong. Acting is above the normal posing desired for a glamour shoot. The model must be able to mimic fear, panic, stress, lasciviousness, desire, lust etc. – all depending on the message you want to convey.
  4. Composition: Think black-and-white and you will automatically get an idea about how to compose a frame!

Beautifying & Styling

Drama Noir Lighting - Sexy Women Photography by Dan Hostettler7

We are working with a very highly coordinated styling here. The drama lighting, with its hard shadows and defined shadow casts, needs to be fully supported by the make-up, hair and styling. As an outfit, we have chosen a black ensemble with lots of lines. But what’s even more important and further backs the “drama principle”, is the beautifying part.

We go with a visually tough hair styling; the eyes are made up very dark and the lips are kept matte because it resembles noir drama after all and not glam drama!
The whole setting was imagined in black-and-white even if the results might stay colored.
The complete look is being enhanced by the respective poses and shadows cast.

Lighting Setup: Character and Story Creation

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Key Light Only: The light setting is only made up of one light: A key light. I am going with a standard reflector and a very close meshed grid attached to it. This strongly narrows the beam and creates an effect similar to a spotlight. The beam’s final radius depends on the distance between lamp and model. I am directing the key light straight towards the model.

Harsh Shadow Cast Desired: For a good recognizable shadow cast, I need to place the model a little bit further away from the plane wall. A shadow cast is becomes more visible as soon as a subject is placed at a greater distance to the wall.

Creating a Story with Light: We clearly see the limited light beam. I associate this quite well with a followspot or with a round paparazzo flash lamp from the 50s, just as if you were following a model or a person. Here on our set, the lighting is setup in a static way. Meaning the light is not following the subject. That’s why I have to turn this story around: The model and her expressions will mainly happen within the perimeter of this fixed light beam. Once again it is important to mention that the shadow cast has to be very precise, well defined and clearly visible. Therefore, we don’t find anything soft in this setting. It is the logical consequence deriving from this kind of light source with a standard reflector attached.

Drama Noir Lighting - Sexy Women Photography by Dan Hostettler2

Posing: Acting Needs to Support a Story

The current posing itself is not bad at all. However, this setting is now all about developing a story with it. Since we have a static spotlight, a random posing gets rather boring in the long run. So I need to create a little story: The woman, meaning our model Melisa, suddenly gets caught by this light beam and obviously she does not like it at all.

First, she acts surprised – then she becomes defensive. Melisa walks through the beam which lets us develop a neat illusion of her being chased by something or somebody simply by means of her display of emotions, gestures and certain posing in this spotlight. We are working solely with shadows, hands and facial expressions – and this way the scene is brought to life.

Drama Noir Lighting - Sexy Women Photography by Dan Hostettler8

It is a very beautiful series and I very much like the results. We are having a very expressive sequence in this actually static light setting.
I am sure that if you shoot a fast-paced series, you can wonderfully improvise in conjunction with your model. If your model is originally from the glamour genre, try to draw her out; create a story. Show her poses and actions, do a little coaching, try to get her very expressive. The model will most likely have lots of fun with this! Sometimes it takes a little time – but it will evolve. Just as we can see on these pictures here…

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Lighting Gear & Specs Used

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  • 1x Monolight 400 Ws @180 WS
  • 1x Standard Refelector Ø 18cm/7” – w/Grid

Camera Gear & Specs Used

  • 1x Nikon Fullframe
  • 50-85mm
  • f/9
  • 1/160
  • ISO 100
  • 4900°K

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A traveler at heart, inspired by women, working along Swiss precision. Dan is a mediapreneur, photographer, author of several books and founder + Editor in Chief of Being a successful photographer for more than 15 years Dan got internationally published and featured on/in GQ Online, The India Times, FashionONE TV, FotoTV, GoodLight Mag, amongst many others. Dan is currently residing and working in Prague, CZ. Dan will talk about his projects, provide insights in shootings & concepts, produce webinars, create Academy content, explain styles, emphasize the importance of working with models and any other exciting topic he discovers along the way.

Did you ever shot a dramatic lightened scene (incl. ‘low key’)? Please show us examples.

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Close to – but not exactly – low key…and certainly not “traditional” art nude. Key light was 22″ beauty dish with 15-degree grid.

Model: Tiffany Helms for American Apparel
Makeup, hair and wardrobe styling: Caroline Langdon

Nikon D7100
Sigma 18-200 (at 25mm)
ISO 100

Hi Dan. Another great little video and info blog with images. I have always favoured Noir lighting Hollywood beauty and drama and have even put it into my boudoir and art nude shoots for some clients, But used mostly with models for their or my portfolio’s… it’s clean and simple to do and you don’t need to much room for it. To improve on my own work in this area, I am currently revamping my small studio space, an uplift in painted background’s of different colours, adding a diffused natural window light and a new false doorway with flash light… Read more »

Hyvät sivut teillä ja paljon hienoja ohjeita.

This was a great concept well executed. I immediately thought of several ways to use the concept for my own shoots. Thank you for sharing!

Dave Pruett

Hello Dan,
Thank you so much for the Inspiration!
Here you see one of my results! Due to the fact, that I didn´t have a lightformer for my portable strobe I took a grid and a smaller flash.
Here you can find my story about the shooting: