with Courtney Slazinik
Creating Dramatic Light in a Small Space

Creating dramatic light in small spaces

I shoot in natural light and low light. I adore dramatic light.

The kind that makes me suck in a quick breath when I see it and causes my heart to skip a beat or the kind that makes me take a wild u-turn because I saw a beautiful patch of light and my kids are screaming, “Where are we going Mom, this isn’t the way!!”. Sometimes it’s unexpected where I find it and that’s what makes it interesting. I’ve spent the last year or so discovering that in addition to some yummy outdoor light, there are plenty of spaces and places in my home where I can create some beautiful photos of my boys. Making photos of them makes me happy. My heart feels full knowing that I’m documenting their life, who they are right now. I hope they will always allow me to do that.

When I first started learning to shoot in full manual mode I did most of my practicing outdoors. Then I discovered I actually liked to shoot indoors where I could control my light a bit more. I didn’t have to worry about the sun moving in and out of the clouds, or my shady spot being too shady. Once I began to learn how to use light effectively indoors, I was hooked on indoor, documentary style photography. For me, it’s more than just finding some pretty light. It’s finding light that gently greets the shadows. It’s the light that wraps around their forms so perfectly that the skin becomes luminous. This type of light; it gives my art depth and emotion and makes me so happy.

My dramatic light setup:

I have a fantastic room in my home with a magical chair! I call it my ‘magical chair’ because it was nicknamed that by some lovely classmates during Sarah Wilkersons’ Composition & Creativity 301 workshop over at Clickin’ Moms. Everyone from that class believed I couldn’t take a bad photo in that chair!! ;) So this room- it’s actually my husbands’ home office (trying to figure out a way to make it my little studio!) it has 2 decent size windows that face west-ish and also gets a little bit of that awesome north facing light as well. In the mid to late afternoon those rays of light come in and I get some beautiful directional light with warmth. What I love about this room is that I can adjust the blinds how I want the light to wrap around my subject. I can make it as dramatic as I want. I also have a dark blank wall and a fairly simple chair.

dramatic light pull back

My settings:

I shoot in Kelvin. In my home the temperature (color) is fairly cool so I will set it between 5400-5600, sometimes higher if needed. I don’t like to have to adjust the temperature too much in ACR if I don’t have to. I use live view a lot on my Canon 5D Mark iii. It enables me to see my scene in camera exactly how I want it to look out of camera. So in “live view” often times I will adjust all my settings there, ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, and white balance. In addition to shooting in Kelvin, often times I will switch my camera to monochromatic. I feel like I can see the light and shadows play across my subjects easier in black and white. Try it sometime!

My subject:

Currently, I shoot for me. So my subjects are my family, particularly my triplets & singleton (all boys!). In most cases lately, my shoots involve a bribe of some kind. :) This particular shoot I’m sharing with you today the reward was getting to play minecraft on the iPad when we finished. :D Typically I don’t use any props. When I’m shooting just one of my sons however, sometimes that is a little more difficult. I think they’re not quite sure what to do and I don’t provide a lot of direction. I like them to be them. So today, I asked my son to get something that he liked to play with. He brought back two Lego figures. I typically will shoot a few frames and then if I’m not happy with the way the light is hitting him I will make adjustments. In this case I was already losing light because I started a little too late in the day (after school). So I ended up moving the chair forward a bit and a couple inches more towards the window and upped my ISO. I don’t want harsh light from the blinds going across his body for this one, however I do want some nice areas of shadow.

dramatic light in house

The thing with this location is that you get light on one side. So I have to choose where and how I want to use that light. I don’t use a reflector nor do I have a light source coming from camera right. All the light behind me is fairly minimal as it’s the open living area and the light from those windows is minimal at that time of day. In most of my shooting, my approach is I wait. I wait for my son to settle in and get comfortable doing what he’s doing and then he forgets about me and my camera. Some days it seems, I wait and wait and wait. Other days I get lucky and I’m able to capture him without much prompting on my part. In this series, these were from the very end of my shoot with him. It’s always at the end where I get the ones that make my heart sing.

dramatic light in your house

My vision & processing:

I mentioned, I like to shoot in monochromatic. I also love dramatic images. If I know going in that I’m going to convert to black and white I will shoot in monochromatic (note it doesn’t leave your image in black/white, you still have to make a conversion so don’t be surprised when they upload in color)! In this particular room, I’m 50/50. I really love the color of the chair and the warmth I feel from that location from the afternoon sun. I did shoot these images in monochromatic thinking I would convert all to black/white. However, I actually preferred a few of them in color.

When I shoot, I expose for the skin first and then I make adjustments from there. Sometimes in post I will need to bring up exposure in some other areas because I didn’t want to overexpose what I felt to be important parts of the skin/body. I’m okay with that and sometimes the grain that goes along with bringing up exposure. I have no problem embracing the grain! In this particular room in addition to being mindful of bright spots on the skin, I have to be very careful not to ‘blow out’ or overexpose the chair. I definitely chimp a little while I am shooting to make sure that I’m achieving my vision.

In post-processing, I will pull my images in to ACR (Adobe Camera Raw). I always shoot RAW on the largest quality. Yes, they are large files, but it’s worth it to me to have more data to work with and print. If you’re not currently shooting in RAW I challenge you to try it out. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can do with your photos. I do approximately 90% of my editing in ACR. I almost always use the tone curve. I love the way you can enhance the shadows and highlights. I will also convert my images to grayscale and make adjustments accordingly. Don’t forget to do your straightening and sharpening in ACR as well (you will still want to sharpen for output in Photoshop).

dramatic light

creating dramatic light

Once I pull my images in to Photoshop (I currently use CS5) sometimes I will apply a black and white gradient layer. I feel like this deepens my black and white images. I typically will do a curves layer to brighten if needed and a levels layer to add some contrast if needed as well. After my edits, I’ll flatten, convert to 8bit+sRGB and then size and sharpen for web!

I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about my work and my process and hope that I have inspired you in some way. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others’ as I wouldn’t know anything I know today without all the support and help from fellow photographer friends as well as some great workshops that I have taken.

Do you have a “magic” spot in your house where you can capture dramatic light images?

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  • December 18, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    What a wonderful article Celeste. I always learn something new from you. <3 Your images are stunning and I love love that last smiling picture. <3

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:05 PM

      I love that last picture too!! Celeste did an awesome job!!

  • December 18, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    Gorgeous work dear friend. I love your “magical chair”. :)

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:05 PM

      I think we all need a “magical” chair :) Thanks for your comment :)

  • December 18, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    Love Celeste’s work. A pure artist in every sense of the word. Her black and whites are amazing. Thanks for post.

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:06 PM

      She truly is an artist!

  • December 18, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    I have seen the magical chair up close and personal, and I can tell you that the space truly is perfect for creating dramatic light. Her boys are playful and amazing and I love them all…ok, and her too! ;) Always a fan of your work my friend…keep making magic.

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:06 PM

      What a treat for you to have seen the “magical” chair in person :)

  • December 18, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    Loved the article Celeste! And I think you are magical, not the chair ;)

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM

      I completely agree :)

  • Amy W.
    December 18, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    I love your magical chair! It does it’s part but you add the magic. Great article Celeste — I’ve always wanted to see a pullback of that chair :)

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM

      Yes, I love pullbacks as well!! Totally agree that Celeste creates the magic!!

  • December 18, 2012 at 10:33 PM

    Celeste, you are such a wonderful photographer… capturing real moments and real emotion. You make magic with your camera, though that chair does have some serious ju-ju! That last image is so incredible, what a connection! I can feel his joy. Great article!!!

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:08 PM

      I completely agree that Celeste makes the real magic!! I love that you said the chair has “ju-ju”. We all need a chair like that :)

  • December 20, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    Celeste! These are gorgeous photos and you are so incredibly talented! Great work and a fabulous article! <3

    • Courtney
      December 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM

      Celeste did do a great job!! Thanks :)

  • November 17, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    This was an enjoyable post! Thanks for the tips. I’m inspired :) I plan to utilize dramatic light in our house soon!

  • Arden B
    December 17, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Love it, thanks for sharing!!

    Say, What do you mean by ” flatten, convert to 8bit+sRGB and then size and sharpen for web”? I’m still pretty new to PS, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of “flattening” an image. Typically, once I’ve finished editing, I’ll just reduce the size to 20% and upload that to web… Sounds like I’m skipping a few steps!!

    love, LOVE your site. My wife is getting jealous of the time I’m spending with my 6D :)

    • December 27, 2013 at 3:16 PM

      Hey Arden,

      To flatten, you click on the “Layer” option and at the bottom there is a flatton image button. This puts all the layers together. Hope that helps! Enjoy your 6D :)

  • March 31, 2014 at 10:38 PM

    Wonderful article Celeste! I definitely have a magical spot in my home that is my go-to place for photos. Your use of dramatic light is beautiful!!

  • Debbie
    August 14, 2018 at 1:19 AM

    Excuse me if you stated this, however, I didnt see it. Where do you meter? Still on their faces?

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