Dramatic Lighting: how to create stylish portraits using simple Photoshop effects

Dramatic Lighting: how to create stylish, on-trend portraits using simple Photoshop effects

In our latest Raw Tuesday tutorial we show you in-depth how to tweak your raw files and use a range of simple Photoshop effects to recreate the look of dramatic lighting in your portrait photography.

Dramatic Lighting: how to create stylish, on-trend portraits using simple Photoshop effects

Back in 2006, Jill Greenberg’s stunning portraits of crying children attracted plenty of controversy. To provoke the gut-wrenching emotion on display, a lollipop was offered then taken away, which some critics felt was tantamount to child cruelty.

But another thing that stood out about the images was the stylised, intentionally over-the-top enhancements and dramatic lighting.

Here we’ll show you how to give your portraits a similar stylised treatment by using a range of digital techniques to replace the background and enhance the face.

Along the way we’ll learn a host of key Photoshop skills, from selective Raw tweaks with Camera Raw’s Adjustment Brush, to replacing the background with a colourful gradient.

We’ll employ non-destructive techniques with Smart Objects, Layer Masks and Adjustment Layers, so each part of the effect can be tweaked at any time. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated, because the technique is very simple.

If you’re using your own portraits, the effect works well on faces that have been lit with a combination of front and side or back-lighting. We captured this baby with one light behind him to the left, and another in front, above and slightly to the right.

This gives the face depth by creating lots of highlights and shadows, which can then be emphasised in Photoshop with some intensive dodging and burning. Here’s how it’s done…

How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: steps 1-6

How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 1

01 Make Basic tweaks
Open Adobe Bridge and navigate to your raw file, then right-click it and choose Open in Camera Raw. Alternatively, download our raw file used in this tutorial! Now go to the Basic Panel on the right and set Temperature 5200, Tint -9 to correct the White Balance. Next, set Whites +8, Blacks -20, Clarity +9, Vibrance +18.


How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 2

02 Adjust colour saturation
We can use the Targeted Adjustment tool to lower the dominant yellows. Grab the tool from the Toolbar. Right-click in the image and choose Saturation. Drag downwards on the background wall. The HSL Greyscale Panel shows the colour values as you drag. Set Yellows to about -35 and Greens -24.


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How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 3

03 Paint an adjustment
We’ll use the Adjustment Brush to boost the irises. Zoom in close then grab the Adjustment Brush from the Toolbar. Go to the sliders on the right and set Exposure +1.55. Set Brush size to about 3, Feather 50 and check Show Mask, then paint a precise mask directly over the irises.


How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 4

04 Enhance the irises
Check Erase and set Brush Size to about 2, then paint to erase the mask over the pupil. When you’re happy with the mask, uncheck Show Mask Overlay, then go to the tonal sliders at the top right. Keep Exposure at +1.55 and set Contrast +26, Clarity +40, Saturation +49.


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How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 5

05 Select the background
Hold Shift and click Open Object to open the image into Photoshop as a Smart Object. Grab the Magic Wand tool from the Tools Panel then go to the Options Bar. Set Tolerance to 10 and check Contiguous, then click on the background wall to begin a selection.


How to create dramatic lighting in Photoshop: step 6

06 Refine the hair
Hold Shift and continue clicking to add to the selection until all but the baby is selected. Next go to Select>Inverse, then Select>Refine Edge. Select View: On Black then set Radius 2.4px. Grab the Refine Radius tool from the left of the box, then paint over the edge of the head to increase the area of refinement.


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  • jmeyer

    Hi, thanks for your message. There is indeed! We’ve put it on the server now for download. Click the link below!


  • Thant you very much is a grotesque image. Awful!

  • KG

    Not a fan of the end result whatsoever.

  • Tery LeFebvere

    DOn’t listen to the these trolls!!! You have done an amazing work!!