“Portrait lighting” is an anxiety-inducing term for some photographers. Of course there are some who aren’t all that interested in photographing human subjects, but there are many more who might avoid serious attempts at portrait photography due to a perception that associated challenges aren’t really worth their time, money, and effort. This mindset usually presumes complex, expensive lighting setups that require substantial floorspace. Even if such a setup is typical of many professional portrait photographers, it is by no means the only pathway to great portraits.
One light. It’s the perfect starting point, especially if you’re a beginner. With one light you have a low cost, highly portable, space efficient, easy to manipulate lighting setup. A single light, properly situated and modified (if necessary) can be used to create stunning portraits that compromise absolutely nothing when it comes to visual impact.
What Are Your Light Source Options
If you’re going to use a single light source, you may be wondering what exactly that source of light should be. You have several options, including but not limited to the following:
- Speedlight – A small, portable flash unit that can be used on-camera or off and runs on AA batteries.
- Studio strobe – Typically larger and more powerful than a speedlight, a strobe runs on AC power so you’ll plug it into a wall outlet or use a large battery pack.
- The sun – The best single source of constant light, given you work at the right time of day.
A candle, a desk lamp, or a flashlight are also examples of possible — if somewhat impractical — light sources that, with a little ingenuity, can be employed in service of your portraiture.
Photo by Colby Stopa
No matter what your light source is or how many lights you’re using, modifying that light in some way is usually going to give better results.
- Umbrella – An umbrella is used to either soften or direct light and is commonly available in two types: white and silver. A white umbrella, sometimes referred to as a shoot-through umbrella, is used to soften the light of a speedlight or strobe. A silver umbrella is used to reflect the light of a speedlight or strobe.
- Reflector – You will find reflectors in silver, gold, and white. Or you can use a large piece of foam core as a simple, low cost white reflector.
- Window – If you’re working indoors and using the sun as a light source, a window works as an excellent diffuser.
How to Positioning the Light or Subject
There are numerous ways to arrange everything in a single light setup and it will all depend on the type of lighting you’re using and what effect you’re going for. With a speedlight or strobe, you can move them around to established the directionality of the light. If you’re using a window, you will have to position your subject in relation to the light to achieve your desired effect. Once you’ve established the key (main) lighting, all you need to do is place your modifier (if you’re using one) for the finishing touch.
Easier said than done, right? Click this link to view a series of single light setup diagrams accompanied by images that show the effects of each scenario.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
- Single light portraiture can be dramatic and moody due to dense shadows. If you feel the shadows are too intense, increase ISO and lower shutter speed.
- Beware of hotspots (usually occurring on the cheeks or forehead) where a patch of skin is over-exposed. Reposition your subject or try feathering the light to decrease its intensity in the affected area.
- Keep the light above your subject’s eye line.
- Experiment with mixing an artificial light source with ambient light.
- Larger modifiers create softer light.
- Experiment with subject-light distance. Greater distance will produce more shadows.
- Use a reflector to reduce unwanted shadows.
There’s no reason to think that single light portraiture is just for novices. Many fashion photographers use a single light source (such as a beauty dish) in their work, underscoring the fact that this is a simple but highly effective approach to making portraits. You can do a lot with one light; the inherent challenges are relatively easy to overcome and the final results will impress.
One Light Portraits: Simple Elegance – Digital Photography School
One Light Portrait Setup – Ed Verosky (video)
Photography lights made simple: classic one light portrait setups to try right now – Digital Camera World (free cheat sheet)
Photo by Baris Cihan
Photo by Jason Devaun
Photo by Ian Norman
Photo by r. nial bradshaw
Photo by Jason Devaun