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The Highs of Portrait Photography

Deep blacks, blown out whites. The stark juxtaposition between light and dark. These are the hallmarks of high contrast photography. This week, we’ll be shedding some light on how to achieve this distinctive photographic style with your Canon camera and other accessories by playing with light and shadows.

High contrast portraits often strike a chord deep within the viewer's soul. The combination of strongly contrasting elements makes an electrifying, moving photograph.

Photographer Olivia Sari-Goerlach's high contrast portraits are thanks to the deft way she lights her subjects and set using her studio lights.

While most people might think that you need a lot of light for a high contrast image, it's actually not that simple. One trick is actually having as few light sources as possible! In fact, having just one might give you the best results.

While studio lighting is often preferred, you can achieve a similar effect with natural lighting - a single strobe, flash or even just the sun is sufficient. Great news for those of us who live in places with harsh afternoon sunlight. The most important thing? Your subject needs distinct areas of light and dark.

Olivia tells us: "My standard settings for studio portraiture work is between f/8-f/10 for Aperture settings, a shutter speed of 1/125, and ISO 200 on my Canon 5D Mark II." But what makes her subjects pop is how she controls the "intensity and positioning of the light", which is why she prefers to use studio lighting.

Here's an easy set-up for your first high contrast portrait shot: To start, shoot your subject in a dark room with a single light source. Afternoon light shining through a window or a strong bulb works equally well. Cast that light angled to the side of your subject - this will throw beautiful shadows that will ‘sculpt' the landscape of his or her face. Combined with a close-up and you'll end up with the classic silhouette portrait shot, where your subject is drenched in hot, bright colours (or white light) against dramatic opposing shadows.

If you're looking for an even stronger look, try your camera's contrast setting. Switch your camera to manual mode, look for the contrast settings (in EOS models, head to the Picture Styles menu, select Info and then Contrast) and bump it up to +1 or +2.

And while high contrast portraiture is often in black & white, it doesn't mean that you can't experiment with colour! Bright, almost iridescent colours against dark shadows work best. Think makeup, hair accessories or just emphasising on your subject's hair colour will make things pop. But remember to keep things simple! The fewer colours in your image, the more effective the contrast. You don't want your subject lost in a sea of other bright colours.

Most important of all, Olivia reveals to us that experimenting with your set-up and learning to direct your subject well is the key to good portrait photography, high contrast or not. "You subject has to be comfortable with the photographer too, that's very important," she stressed. There is only so much post-processing can do, after all!

Olivia Sari-Goerlach

A Photographer with a passion for capturing images, she specializes in Portraiture & Food photography along with some food styling. She started out her career in 2010 working for an established portraiture studio in Sydney where she fell in love with portraiture. Based in Singapore since 2011, she continues to practice her photography, taking on interesting projects and with a keen interest in collaborating with other creatives. She is currently the Canon Pixma ambassador for Singapore since 2014, highlighting her latest focus in food photography.