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Video for The Power of Grids | How to Create Dramatic Lighting

While we’ve used a wedding-themed styled shoot to demonstrate this technique, you can use the grid technique to create dramatic lighting in most any area of portrait photography. A grid is a simple photography tool used to control light direction and minimize light spill when using a flash or strobe. To paraphrase Trevor Dayley of MagMod, if you hold a grid up to your eye, you can quickly see how it limits your field of view. Grids present an effective way to funnel light forward, and we recommend keeping one in your lighting kit at all times.

Step One: Compose the Shot

Compose the shot first before adjusting lighting
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 800 (no grid or flash used)

In the image above, we composed the shot, but we only exposed for skin tones and didn’t use any flash. Because we’ve exposed for the skin, we’ve lost a lot of the unique ambiance from the neon lights and other details in the scene. Everything looks sort of bright and washed out.

Step Two: Dial In Ambient Light

Dial in ambient lighting before adding light
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 100 (no grid or flash used)

For this image, we’ve cut the ISO to lower the ambient light and capture more of the ambiance we lost in the initial shot. The neon light on the mural now creates a much more intriguing backdrop for our subject.

[Related Reading: One Simple Technique To Make Your Subjects Stand Out (with BTS!)]

Step Three: Modify the Light

Based on the previous image, we can see that we don’t have enough light landing on our subject’s face; we’re going to need to modify the light and add a flash to bring our subject back as the focal point of the photo.

Add Off-Camera Flash

Add off camera flash after ambient lighting is set
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 100 (Profoto B10 flash used without a grid)

To illustrate what happens when using a flash with no grid, we added a Profoto B10 to camera right and kept our same camera settings from the previous shot. You can see that while our subject now has adequate light, the tremendous amount of light spill has killed the natural look of the scene.

bare bulb vs ambient light
Ambient light vs. bare bulb using identical camera settings

Add a Grid to the Off-Camera Flash

Add a grid to the off camera flash
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 100 (Profoto B10 flash used with a 20-degree grid)

In order to adequately light our subject while maintaining the ambient look we’re after, we’re going to need to add a grid to funnel the light coming from our off-camera flash. The grid will ensure the light doesn’t spill onto the walls or other parts of our scene that we want to keep underexposed.

20 degree grid on profoto b10
A closer look at the 20-degree grid in action on a Profoto B10

Grids are measured in degrees, and we’re using a 20-degree grid. The lower the degree number, the tighter the focus of the beam of light coming from the flash, and vice versa. The 20-degree grid is sort of a middle-of-the-road option, not too tight or too wide.

[Related Reading: Creative Flash Photography Techniques for Natural and Dramatic Portraits in 4 Simple Steps]

before and after of flash with and without grid
Off-camera flash used with and without a grid

When you compare the shot with the grid to the previous shot, you can see the grid’s impact on the image. This is a step in the right direction; however, we can still make adjustments to get to a better final image.

Move the light source closer to the subject
Moving the light source closer added a little extra light to our subject

We’re using a Profoto B10, but you can use most any flash to achieve similar results. In this series of shots, we’re using the modeling light on the flash. In order to bump up the light output a bit, we simply leaned the light in closer to our subject.

Step Four: Use a Phone to Add a Reflection and Conceal Unwanted Elements in the Scene

Add a reflection to conceal unwanted elements
A smartphone surface conceals the stair rail and adds interest with a reflection

The handrail didn’t look horrible in the previous images, but using my phone, I concealed the rail and added interest to the photo with the reflection.

Hold the camera up to the phone surface for reflection
Hold the camera up to the phone surface and angle it accordingly for a solid reflection

After composing the shot and dialing in the details, we captured a few more photos and arrived the following final images.

final image for power of grid photography tutorial 01
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 100 (Edited with Visual Flow Presets: Modern > Flash)
final image for power of grid photography tutorial 02
Canon 5DIV, Sigma Art 24mm prime, 1/200, f/1.4, ISO 100 (Edited with Visual Flow Presets: Modern > Flash)

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson on how to create dramatic lighting using a grid – catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!