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5 Easy Studio Setups With One Light

Studio lighting is one of the most versatile tool sets available to you as a photographer. Apart from 24 hour access to a quality light source, there is a vast quantity of modifiers, accessories, and techniques that allow you to design and shape the light exactly as you need to fulfil your creative vision. However, all of this choice that is available to you can often result in confusion and indecision. The sheer amount of stuff available can also lead you to believe you need more than you already have.

Fortunately, in the case of lighting, less is often really more. In this tutorial I am going demonstrate five ways to use a single light source to good effect, with a variety of subjects. Even though each of these images was created with a specific modifier, each setup will work with most any modifier of your choice. For example, you could swap a softbox for a beauty dish. This will alter the shape and softness of the light but you will still get good results. Some of the techniques also use a silver reflector.

If you don’t have a reflector, you can get a large piece of cardboard and glue a sheet of aluminium foil to it. Another option is to use a mirror. You don’t even need a strobe or flash to make these techniques work; window light, with a bit of extra effort can produce the same effects.

Here are five easy studio setups with one light you can try yourself.

Setup #1

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Simplicity in technique is the aim of this first image. The light source is a strobe fitted with a medium sized softbox. It is positioned about five feet away from the subject, elevated about four feet above, and pointed down at a 45 degree angle. The camera is directly under the softbox (this is called Butterfly lighting).


Lighting diagram for light placement

The centre of the softbox is pointed to the left of the model (camera right) with only the edge of the light source directly falling on her. This technique is called feathering. It is useful for controlling and fine-tuning the light in a scene, and helps to soften light from a harder modifier such as an 110 degree reflector.

If you don’t think you’re ready to try feathering just yet, try to aim your light source at your subject’s nose instead.

Setup #2

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To create dramatic lighting in your photos, try lighting your subject from behind. This image of my dog is lit by a softbox placed at a 45 degree angle behind her at camera left. The softbox is just out of the left-hand side of the frame and is very close to the subject. Because she is black and white, there is a huge amount of contrast in the scene. This left the shadow areas closest to the camera very dark. To fix this, you would introduce a reflector. The reflector is also only just out of the frame on the right-hand side. Bringing it in close allows you to increase the amount of reflected light filling in the dark shadows.

Setup #3

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For added versatility, you can combine the previous two techniques. This image is again lit by a softbox six feet behind the pastry and elevated about five feet above. Instead of pointing the light source at the pastry, it is aimed straight ahead so that the softbox is not directly illuminating the subject. This is a more extreme version of feathering that creates beautifully soft light.


When you feather the light in this way, be aware that you are lighting the scene with a only a tiny fraction of your flash’s output. You will need to compensate by altering your ISO, increasing the flashes power output or altering your aperture.

To fill in the shadows created by the backlighting, use your silver reflector.

Setup #4

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If you want to create images with more contrast in your light than a softbox provides, try using a silver beauty dish. The light source in this photo is slightly to the right of the camera and is three feet away from the subject. The bottom edge of the beauty dish is lined up with the top of the model’s head, again creating the feathering effect. To fill in the shadows, ask your model to hold the reflector pointed towards her chin and just out of the frame.

Setup #5

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If you prefer really soft light, you need to increase the size of your light source in relation to your subject. The obvious ways to do this are to move your light source closer to your subject, or to use a bigger modifier.

Alternatively, you can bounce your light into a wall or a ceiling, converting that surface into your light source.
To imitate the lighting in this image, fit your light source with a bare reflector and point it into the corner of a room. Be wary of off-coloured walls though; the slightest deviation from white can cause colour casts in your images that take a lot of time to correct. If you’re shooting black and white, then colour casts are irrelevant and you can bounce your light from just about any surface you can imagine.


As you can see, you don’t need piles of equipment to get the most out of the studio. A single strobe, a modifier or two, and a reflector will provide you limitless creative opportunities for your photography. Go ahead and alter these suggestions to suit your needs and style and don’t be afraid to experiment, there really are an infinite number ways to use this modest amount of equipment.

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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