From Darkness

I was about to hit the shower upon returning from a weekend roadtrip where I was the solo driver. I caught a brief glimpse of myself in the mirror and thought what’s a more opportune time for an impromptu selfie. I have been wanting to do an emerging-out-of-darkness headshot for some time now. My fatigued face and bloodshot eyes presented that opportunity. Two hours later (I tend to get fixated at times), I have these dramatic shots. 



Impromptu Setup

Impromptu Setup

The setup is pretty straight forward: One key light overhead, one LED under the face for fill and to give a little reflection in the eyes. Since all this was very impromptu, I simply mounted the key light on the door frame via super clamp and I fill light I positioned freely by hand. No black seamless backdrop here, just about 6 feet of space between myself and the bathroom wall was all I needed to get a completely black background.


Focal length was set to 42mm (84mm at 35mm equiv.) for flattening my chubby face. Filling the frame and composing the shot was challenging because slight errors in focus and framing was much more noticeable. If would have been easier to simply widen the frame to give me more leeway but that would come at the cost of losing resolution and i wanted this to be a detailed gritty portrait so I stuck it through at that focal length.

Aperture was between f/8 to f/11, again for gritty detail. No soft fluffy portrait here. Shutter was between 1/30 to 1/60. ISO is between 200-800, I didn’t mind a little graininess since I was going for a gritty look. It was a worthy trade-off as long as it let me keep the aperture small and shutter speed short.


Cheek sucked in too much.

Cheek sucked in too much.

I directed myself to sucked my cheek in a little to sell that starving post-apocalypse look. I was naturally tired so I need not squint much to avoid that bug-eyed look some people naturally get in photos. I unconventionally place the camera below eye level because I have no double chin to hide and prefer the more imitating look for this portrait.


I ultimately choose the following three photos as the finals and processed them three ways: soft, medium, and hard. I knew from the get-go that I wanted a hard dramatic shot but nonetheless it was worth experimenting with a soft glamour shot and a happy medium between the two. Each process had something I liked from the soft tonal range to the sharp shiny reflections.  This will give me options later on as I can always apply the settings to the other shot if necessary.

Left to right: Soft, Medium, Hard.

Some airbrushing was needed to remove the light spilling on the shirt but details on the face were left largely untouched. Sharpness was also turned up a bit but I mostly relied on clarity and contrast to bring out the sharp detailed. Below are the setting used to achieve the hard look.


I wish I included some hand gestures. I wish I could have soften the shadow under my nose, while keep the strong cheekbones. Most importantly, I wish I had drawn out exactly what I wanted prior to the shoot. I knew I wanted to be emerging from darkness but I didn’t know exactly how much of my face I wanted in light so I took a variety of random shots. Had I drawn it out, I could have worked systematically to achieve the desired look.


I am available for hire for headshots and fashion shoots. My photography portfolio is available at You can reach me at or comment below.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *