How to do Great Portraits with One Light

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When you first start experimenting with lighting it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Never has the old expression K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) been more appropriate. The most important step is to master what you can achieve with one light source before you start adding others.

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Besides, what you CAN achieve with only one light source, used correctly, is quite remarkable.

For this article I have delved into my back catalogue and sourced images that were shot with a single speedlight off-camera. I hate carrying tons of equipment and even now, for 80% of my commercial work, I will try to use one light source only when possible.

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Shot with a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite bounced into a 40” white Profoto umbrella

In the below business portrait a diffused umbrella gives us nice catch lights in the subject’s eyes, while allowing for rapid fall away to bring out the shadows. The portrait is shot against a pop-up Westcott black background. A diffused umbrella is a great low-cost investment that massively improves the quality of light from your speedlight, and is easily set up and transported.

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Lit with a Canon RT600 Speedlite into a Phottix Para-Pro diffused umbrella

To create the image below I had to expose for the blue sky and then pump as much light into the subject as possible – this is a speedlight at the limit of its capability – the umbrella helps to increase the size and evenness of the light spread. The image was shot at 24mm so the umbrella is as close to the subject as possible without being in the frame.

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Lit with a Sony HVL-F58 speedlight bounced into a 40” white Profoto umbrella

It is entirely possible to create professional results without spending a fortune – this cropped cutaway headshot used a Sony SM58 speedlight with an Orbis ring-flash modifier handheld over the top of the speedlight. For this modifier to be effective you really need to be quite close into your subject, as the flash output is significantly reduced by the modifier. Used properly though it can create some great results.

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Lit with a Sony HVL-F58 speed light and an Orbis Ring Flash modifier

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Another example of a portrait shot with the same modifier, lit with a Sony HVL-F58 speed light and an Orbis Ring Flash.

Notes for doing one light portraits:

  • When you are shooting single light setups, you need to remember to keep it simple
  • You can create some great shadows with a single light source
  • Watch out for hotspots created by undiffused light
  • Try blend your added light with the ambient light
  • Using large modifiers can help to spread your light more evenly
  • Move your subjects, not the light, to fine tune your images
  • Experiment by changing your position to the light source
  • Work with the distances, subject to light source, to change the hardness and softness of the light

Below is an example of blending the ambient light with artificial light. The speedlight in this instance is to camera right on a light stand about six feet from the model, and slightly in front of her. Shot at full power with no modifier it is hitting the model and the tree. While by no means perfect the image does work as the over exposure on the tree gives a little separation.

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Lit with a Sony HVL-F58 with no modifier

We can see the same model here closer to sunset; shot with a speedlight fitted with an orange gel, bounced into a 30” silver umbrella to emphasize and enhance the already warm available light.

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Lit with a Sony HVL-F58 speedlight, gelled, bounced into a 30” Profoto silver umbrella

Reflectors can also be used to great effect with a single light source, especially when mixing the ambient reflected light with flash fired directly into the reflector will give your images that extra pop. In the portrait below, the natural light and sun were not enough to light the model. A half-power flash from a speedlight helped to improve the overall lighting of the image, and really make the catch lights in the sunglasses stand out.

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Lit with a California Sun Bounce gold/silver and a Sony HVL-F58 speed light

Sometimes ambient light is almost enough. In the below portrait 95% of the light is coming from a window camera left. A thin white blind diffused the light beautifully and evenly but didn’t give the catch lights in the eyes. To fix this I used a diffused umbrella with a speedlight on ¼ power, slightly to camera right. Because of the low power setting the artificial light doesn’t really change the ambient light but does give the eyes that needed brightness to make the image.

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Lit with natural window light a Sony HVL-F58 and a Phottix para pro diffused umbrella

In conclusion

Everything you see here was lit with a single speedlight, and reasonably priced, easily set up modifiers.

Modifiers used – Silver and white umbrellas, a diffused umbrella and an Orbis Ring Flash all of which can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.

Have you done any portraits using only one light? Do you have any additional tips or questions? Please share or ask in the comments below.

For more portrait help try these:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Leo Edwards is a multi award winning photographer based out of Dubai and a Licentiate of The Master Photographers Association. His work has been exhibited from The Grand Atrium in Dubai to The Royal Geographic Society in London. Outside of photography he works with companies and individuals on financial success and management and is a partner in a successful Middle East advisory group.

  • Melindros

    This one of my wife I took a while ago. It does have some post processing i.e. skin smoothing and the like but is one light.

  • Melindros

    One light shot of my wife.

  • Keith Starkey

    Great info. Thanks.

  • taphoto

    Good article. I’m currently working on a long term portrait project using only one light. You can see examples on my site http://thomasalanphoto.com/project-1001-faces/. Thanks again for a good article. TA

  • dantefrizzoli

    Wow. The “no diving” picture doesn’t even look real. It looks like a cartoon. It’s awesome!! Thank you

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    2nd photo seems to have 2 light souces based on the shadow cast..

  • Leo

    Hi Choo – Shadow 2 is the harsh Dubai sun – much more powerful than the speed light I was using 🙂

  • Leo

    Thanks – one of my favourites

  • Leo

    Welcome Keith – let me know if you have any questions

  • Leo

    Good stuff – check out Bobbi Lane for some great lighting tutorials

  • Alami Alami

    Very intresting article; Thanks a lot!

  • Alami Alami

    Photo shot with Sb 910!
    Still struggling of how to use the speed light properly!

  • Alami Alami

    With SB 9100
    F 4
    Shutter speed 1/125
    ISO 100

  • Jorge Beletti

    Hi Leo, how did you manage to get two shadows from one strobe in the shot of the woman with the white dress?

  • Dumi

    Just had a look at that pic also. Which beach is this coz the shadows will never fall as such when you Durbs

  • Geoff

    I noticed that straight away as well Jorge. Maybe moonlight or reflected light from somewhere: windows, that sort of thing? Two shadows always looks strange, even in a stadium.

  • Patrick McPheron

    Very useful information! A lot of times we over think things so this is a good reminder to keep it simple!

  • Lucas Pitcher

    I am finding more and more that single light is often sufficient for portraiture. Using additional lights leads to a geometric increase in complexity, (With which my poor head has trouble.)
    Besides, you almost always have a ‘second’ light source – the sun, or other ambient light to play with.
    Here’s a recent selfie, from an Edwardian event that I went to – using a single SB910 to camera right reflected from a cheap umbrella (I prefer through-flash to reflected, but this warranted a harder-edged look.

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    Multiple lights can give you better pictures only if you know how they will act. Otherwise you may even land up getting TWO NOSE SHADOWS.

    I use a very simple method with one studio light and a flash on the camera for fill-in and get much better NATURAL pictures. I was not so happy with the pictures displayed because of TOO MUCH MAKE-UP AND TOUCH-UP. That’s not the skin that I would like to kiss!

  • BayAreaBiker

    Yeah! It’s the second picture and as soon as I saw the pic, I wondered how can a picture with two shadows make it to the article which is basically covering taking p[hotos with One light. Then I thought, the photographer might have take it on Tatoonie. 😉

  • Johan Bauwens

    It struck me too, very weird and a huge turn off

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    scroll down in the comments

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Scroll down in the comments to read why

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Scroll down in the comments to read his reply

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