If you’ve ever wanted to create more dramatic portraits with minimal effort or even completely in-camera with no Photoshop, this video is for you. In this photoshoot, I set out to create a dramatic editorial image that looks like it was shot late at night. The catch: I’m actually going to be taking the photo at 4 pm.
As photographers, our job often requires us to create two different types of photos. The first is more or less a standard image that simply looks “nice.” These images are often bright and airy, and they may look natural, even though we relied on strobes or constant lights. Or, they might be exposed dark, but they still basically represent the scene as it was presented. The second type of photograph we often have to capture is much more flashy and dramatic. These images might require using multiple lights and lighting tricks to produce something that looks nothing like reality.
Today’s article and video focus on these more intense and embellished styles of photography. While I’m not going to be using a ton of flash (I’m limiting my kit to just two Profoto B10 Plus strobes), my goal for at least one set of images is to create a dramatic “hero shot” that looks like it was taken late at night instead of during the day. I like to call this the “faking the night” technique.
There are many reasons you might want to make your images look like they were taken at night instead of during the day. The most obvious reason is you have a time constraint. Your subject is on a time crunch and you can’t spend the whole afternoon with them capturing photos. You have to decide: do I want daylight-looking images, or do I want dramatic nighttime-looking images? With this technique, you can do both.
The second reason you might want your images to look like they were taken at night is simply that nighttime photos are cool and add a bit of mystery. Taking dark images is fun and offers a completely different narrative to your story than those bright and airy shots we are accustomed to seeing.
The third reason you might want to create images that look like they were shot at night but actually were captured during the day has to do will fill light. In many cases, if you take a photo at night, your background will be completely black with absolutely no detail. Many photographers combat this by shooting during the “blue hour” or the last 30-60 minutes of visible daylight so that there is still some slight detail in the shadows. If you can create a night-looking image but shoot it earlier in the day, you can also retain a lot more highlights and shadows in your dark background. You also aren’t constrained by a tiny window of perfect light that only lasts less than an hour.
This “faking the night” technique works hand in hand with some specific gear you are going to need, so I’m going to talk about it all in one section. The basic formula for this is we need to underexpose our ambient light a lot and make it look like nighttime. This means you need to crank your ISO down to the lowest setting (ISO 32-64 on my Nikon D850), set your aperture to your desired depth of field (smaller apertures help lower exposure), and finally, set your shutter speed to the fastest setting that still allows you to sync to strobes (more on that in a bit).
Let’s first talk about aperture a bit, because in some ways, it is the first thing you are going to really consider when it comes to creating your final image. If you crank your lens’ aperture down to say f/8 or f/16, you can pretty easily create a dark frame at ISO 100 or lower. This will give you a lot of depth of field, though, which is very useful for many types of portraits, but it won’t give you that shallow depth of field that is so commonly used in separating a subject from their background. If you know you need a lot of the scene to be in focus or if your subject has a lot of depth to it that all need to be sharp, you might want to shoot closer to f/8 than wide open. However, if you want to blur the background out and give your image that 3D look, you will definitely want to shoot closer to f/2.8 or even wider.
The problem with shooting wide open at f/2.8 during the daytime is that it will be nearly impossible to underexpose your scene while limiting your shutter to your camera’s flash sync limit. Typically, most cameras can’t sync to flash past 1/160th or 1/250th of a second. This means at ISO 32, f/2.8, and 1/250th of a second, your ambient-only test shot is still going to be too bright. Until camera manufacturers start allowing us to go down to much lower ISO levels like 15, 10, or 4 (and wouldn’t we all love that), there are only two real ways to solve this problem. The first is adding a neutral density filter to your lens, which cuts the light even more without affecting your shutter or aperture or using strobes that let you sync past that 1/250th shutter limit. Luckily, many flashes allow you to do just this!
This photoshoot was sponsored by Profoto, and if you’ve watched any of my other videos on the Fstoppers YouTube channel, you know that I’ve been using Profoto lights as my main lighting system for ages. I made the switch to Profoto late in my wedding career back around 2012 and never looked back. Keep in mind, this technique can be used with any brand of flash, but the big takeaway is that you need both the ability to sync past your camera’s native sync speed, and the more power your flash unit packs, the more easily you will be able to achieve the punch you need to darken your skies in bright light situations. For this shoot, I’m using Profoto’s B10 Plus heads, which allow me to sync well beyond 1/250th of a second and 500 Ws of power.
Now that we have a natural light shot that looks pretty dark and moody, the next step is to correctly expose our subject. Since the scene is underexposed by a few stops, our subject is going to fall into a less than desirable level. In order to correctly expose our subject, the unbelievably ripped and athletic Datus Puryear, we need to add flash to our scene.
Since I want to shoot pretty wide open on my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, my ambient-only photo needs a shutter speed of around 1/800 to 1/1,000th of a second in order to darken the scene. Since my shutter is well beyond my Nikon’s max sync speed of 1/250th of a second, I know I’m going to have to use Profoto’s High-Speed Sync mode.
When the Profoto TTL Air Remote shows the Hi-S symbol under the sync setting, you can now set your camera’s shutter speed pretty much anywhere you need it and get a correct flash exposure. Keep in mind, when using High-Speed Sync mode on any flash system, your camera’s shutter speed now affects the exposure of the flash, so faster shutter speeds will cut the light pretty significantly. This means if you are shooting in super bright situations, you are going to need even faster shutter speeds, which might limit your flash output significantly. In these extreme situations, you might have to move your flash even closer to your subject or remove any modifiers you are using to maximize light output. For my shooting situation, I was shooting around power level 8-10 with the light about 6 feet away from Datus.
Now that we have the exposure dialed in with the flash, the next step is to consider the quality of light you want to hit your subject. If you were to use this technique with a beauty model and wanted softer light, you might consider putting an umbrella or softbox on your light. Since I’m going for an edgy, commercial looking image, I decided to light Datus with the Profoto Zoom Reflector, which gives harder-edged shadows and brighter specular highlights on his skin. You can see in the example below how much flash helps in this exposure as well as the overall edgy look caused by the reflector dish.
Now that we have a basic image with a very underexposed background and a proper exposure on our subject, it’s time to turn give this image its nighttime final look. In order to do that, we are going to do two things. First, we need to change our white balance setting from 5,000 K down to around 3,200 K. This will make all our ambient light and flash look extremely blue.
The next crucial step is to now gel our key light with a CTO gel so that we can make the light on our subject look more normal by warming it up. If you are a Profoto user, the brand new OCF II Gel Holder and Gel Kit are perfect for attaching a gel between your strobe and light modifier. I’ve always hated having to tape my gels to my strobe and then fight to get the modifier back over the thick mess I’ve made, but this new system adds to what I already think is the best attachment design out of all the flash manufacturers. Below, you can see an example of how big of a difference this makes.
Now that we have rounded off the fake night sky look, the last thing I want to do is add a little bit of fill light to my subject. This can be done to taste, but I find that darker skin tones reflect a lot of nice highlights when you have a fill light, and since Datus is also wearing a very black Nike basketball jersey, adding just the smallest pop of flash into the shadows will really bring the total image together.
As I explained in the video, there are many places photographers like to place their fill light. The most subtle location is right behind the camera since it doesn’t really cast any new shadows and the specular highlights will reflect the most on Datus’s skin, the basketball, and the jersey. This light is not gelled so that it has the same blue color as the warm ambient light created by the midday sun. If you want to get really funky, feel free to gel your fill light different colors to create something that has more color saturation in the shadows.
The final last bit of special sauce I add is in post-production, where I usually put a simple Exposure X film effect on my favorite images. Exposure X is one of my favorite pieces of software, and it allows you to not only replicate film looks digitally, but you can add all sorts of cool color effects and overlays to your work. For this particular image, I just wanted to play with the tones of the sky a bit and make them a little more cyan to give it an almost cross-processed look.
I hope you guys enjoyed this shoot. It’s been challenging getting back out on location and shooting during this pandemic, but I hope you can take some of these tips and apply them to your own work. This look is obviously pretty stylized and isn’t going to work for the majority of your shooting situations, but it’s still a really handy trick to have up your sleeve when you need a night look but are pressed to shoot earlier in the day.