Wisdom Wednesday – Single Light Portrait Photography

This week’s Wisdom Wednesday is all about having a successful portrait shoot using only one light source!

As a newer photographer it can appear that the more lights being used equates to a better photographer. Scouring videos online or going to workshops can yield the same tale, that in order to get the super professional shots, you need multiple light setups that cost a fortune.

Well I am here to tell you that single light setups have a special place in the photography world and can produce some of the most amazing portraits out there. Simplifying your setup will allow you to be more mobile with your work while becoming more intimate with your subjects.

Throughout this blog I will attempt to prove to you that one light and reflector is truly all you need to create some of the most beautiful portraits in your portfolio!

Photography shoots can be an exciting time for the photographer and model alike. They can be so fun in fact, that you constantly look for more ways to enhance the experience and develop new setups. This, however, leads to multiple setups being used in a shoot and there is only so much time in the day! With so many lighting setups in play you may end your day with just a handful of muddled and uninspired photos.

When you take a step back, go back to the basics, and use a one light setup, you can actually experience more meaningful creativity. Instead of deriving this creativity from a lighting affect, you will be experimenting with different shooting styles, model poses, wind effects, props, etc. There is a certain amount of freedom that is given to the photographer when lighting is no longer creative burden.

This is not to say you shouldn’t experiment with lighting (This is one of my favorite things to do!), but there is a time and place for everything. Experimenting with lighting may be something that you do on your own time where you can make mistakes and are not in a rush to create a happy customer.

Equipment you will need for the one light setup:

The best part about this method is the complete lack of equipment and money that need to go into it!

1. The light with a soft modifier (This can be a constant light or a flash as long as it isn’t a pop-up flash!)

We have multiple options for lights in our Lighting section on our site, or you can always use naturally lighting if that is available!


2. A white reflector

Again we have an entire selection of Reflectors for you take a look at. Reflectors are generally very affordable!

Here is a good video displaying how to best use this equipment.

Video Credit: Jay P. Morgan

3 different setups


Butterfly Lighting


Loop Lighting


Rembrandt Lighting


Don’t be afraid to get close

The closer the light is to the subject the softer the light will be. At first this sounds like we have it switched but we can assure you this is the way it will work out!

If you are noticing harsh shadows on your subject try getting that light right up in their face! The challenge here can be the heat from the bulb as well as keeping the light out of your shot. Just be sure to discuss with your model how comfortable they are at all times and keep your framing in mind!

If you are noticing harsh shadows on your background you may need to move your entire setup a few feet away. The further you are from the background, the less shadows will show up.

Moving your light source will require you to change your exposure. You can do this with your aperture settings or on the flashes themselves (turn the power up or down accordingly).

You can also alter the exposure in post so don’t worry too much about harsh shadows if you are going for a more contrasting look. Sometimes it can be your best bet to under expose slightly in order to atleast have the shadows to work with if you want!


Get those camera settings in order

First things first, before you flip those lights on, you want to think about your end result and how you are going to achieve it. Think about the camera settings you will be using so you can accurately set up the lights.

If it is a simple head shot and you want a shallow depth of field with the eyes in focus and the rest of the photo gently blurred, then choose a wide open aperture of f/4.0.

If you have props and other elements in the portrait that you need in focus, then choose a smaller aperture and a broader depth of field of f/11. ISO should be set as low as possible to prevent noise. Shutter speed is not much of a factor with studio strobes as the flash is illuminating everything, so I would keep it set just below your sync speed at something like 1/160 sec. Thus, let the aperture you want dictate the shot.

Now, you can either adjust the power of the strobe till it reaches the proper exposure for your shot, or if you want to get even more detailed you can go ahead and use a light meter to set the strobe at the exact aperture you require.


Experiment and Learn

Now all that is left is to take those pictures! Try moving your light and reflector around and see the impact the small adjustments make. Experimenting is made much easier now that you don’t have a ton of different options in front of you.

Worse case scenario is that you don’t like the lighting of one shot so you move it around a bit or move your subject.

Study the bad shots to figure out what went wrong and try again. Learn to embrace your mistakes and I promise you that improvement is not far away.


The Takeaway

Committing to shooting with one light only for any extended period of time can be quite challenging if you’re not use to it. However, this challenge can lead to newly inspired photos and techniques.

If you’re thinking that buying more lighting will automatically take your work to another level, I challenge you to take a step back and explore all of the ways you rock your next photo shoot with just one light and reflector!

As always, we hope this installment of Wisdom Wednesdays was insightful and can propel your photography career to new heights!

We look forward to hearing your feedback so don’t be afraid to comment down below!


Until Next Time

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