How to Do a One Light Portrait Setup and Use it as Your Back-up Plan

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When photographing people, every session is different and every subject is different. This leads to a lot of scope when it comes to lighting choices and experimentation. This variety is fantastic, and it’s a large part of why portraiture is such a rewarding pursuit.

Unfortunately, with too much experimentation, it is all too possible to end a session with a collection of sub-standard images. Yes, this exactly how to grow and develop as a photographer, but where does that leave your subject? Often enough, this situation means that you’ve gotten what you need from the session, chiefly experience, but the subject is left with less than stellar photos for their time. This isn’t much of a problem if you’ve wrangled your kids to sit for you, or if you have paid someone else to pose for you. If you’ve been paid for this portrait session, however, this becomes problematic and can be devastating to your future efforts.

A good way to alleviate this is to always include a technique that you’ve practiced thoroughly. Doing this may not ignite your creative spark, but once it’s done, you can experiment until your heart’s content, while safe in the knowledge that you will still have something usable at the end of the day.

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This article will give you a simple, yet solid, one light technique that works with strobes, flashguns (speedlights) and even window light. It will work with just about any modifier and suits men, women, children, and other subjects just fine.

Equipment

Here’s a list of what you need:

  • A light source: Either flash or window light will work. In terms of modifiers, beauty dishes and softboxes are a great starting point.
  • A white reflector: Don’t have a dedicated reflector? A sheet of white poster board or foam core is a perfect and cheap substitute.

Set up

First, have your subject stand or sit where you need them. If possible, keep them at least five feet from the background. Place your light source directly in front of them, between two and four feet away (60-120cm). Angle the light source (if using flash) so it’s pointing directly at your subject. Watch the shadows falling under their nose and mouth. For this technique, you’re looking to minimize the contrast on your subject’s skin. If the shadows are too long, lower your light source until they are minimized (also make sure you can see the light in their eyes as a catch-light).

Place your reflector directly against your subject, and parallel to the ground at waist level. For ease, you can place it on a stool or a card table. If your subject is sitting, just have them hold it across their knees.

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Because the light source will be so close to your subject, you will need to shoot from directly underneath it. Calculate or meter your exposure and take a test shot. If all is well, you should have a good, clean portrait with soft light.

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Backgrounds

You can change the way your background appears in the image by moving your light source if you’re using flash, or by moving your subject if you’re using window light.

With flash, to get a darker background, you simply move your light source closer to your subject. To get a lighter background, move your light source away from your subject. 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); it’s your choice.

With window light, you’re forced to move your subject instead. For a darker background move your subject closer to the window. For a lighter background, move them farther away. As with flash, this will also result in changes to your exposure. This time you can choose between shutter speed and aperture.

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Farther from the window

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Closer to the window

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You should also be aware that the softness of the light is changed when you adjust the distance between your subject and the light source. If the distance between your light source and your subject decreases, the light will be softer. If that distance increases, the light will be harder.

Tip: If there are shadows falling on the background in your frame, your subject is too close to the background. Try moving your whole setup away from the background a few feet.

Angle of light

You can place your light as high as you want and still get good results; however, for really soft, bright skin you will want to minimize the contrast in blemishes and skin texture. To do this, make sure your light is only slightly higher than your subject, and pointing directly at them. As above, watch for the shadows under the mouth and nose. If they’re long and pronounced, try lowering your light until they disappear.

Window light

If you’re using window light for this technique, the biggest thing to watch out for is you. Because you are lighting your subject from the front, it is all too easy to find yourself blocking your light source. With extremely large windows, this isn’t much of a problem, but with a window in an average home, it can be a pain. One way to sort this is to have your subject sit. That way you can sit, squat or kneel and avoid blocking any light.

In the end

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This technique may seem simplistic in writing, but it is effective and it yields good results. It also takes only a few attempts to nail down. By adding this technique to your toolkit, you’ll be giving yourself something solid to fall back on, should things not go to plan in other ways.

If you decide to give it a go, please feel free to share your results or ask any questions you may have.

People photography week

This week on dPS we’re featuring articles all about different kinds of people photography including portrait, event and travel photography. See all the previous ones below, and watch for more people photography articles over the next few days.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • Olivia White

    How do you get such interesting models?

  • Josh

    Why would the light get softer the closer it is to the subject? I was under the impression based on the inverse square law that the contrast of light on the subject would be more gradual and softer the further away they are from the light source…The technique you explain to make the background darker is evidence of this. So I’m a bit confused…

  • Mandi Lunt Burnham

    My understanding of this topic (light bring softer when it’s closer) became more clear when I thought of it as size of the light source in relation to the subject. For example, the sun is huge, but because it is so far away it can be very harsh and directional. When it’s an overcast day, the clouds act as diffusers and make the sun a bigger light source, and therefore, much softer. Like the sun, if a light is far away from the subject making it smaller than the subject, it becomes harsh. If the light source is larger than the subject (or closer, making it larger) the light will be softer. Maybe that helps. It helped me.

  • Josh

    I would say just try this with a light bulb and just move it’s distance to and from your subject to test the results and I can almost guarantee moving it closer is going to result in harsh light and defined shadows vs. further away.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Josh, I understand your logic here, it’s an easy misunderstanding, but I’m afraid that’s not the case.

    The line I use to remember it is: “The larger the apparent light source, the softer the light.” (It’s “apparent” because a 2’x3′ softbox is the same size whether it’s two feet from the subject or ten, but it appears larger up close). So, it’s the reverse of what you said.

    Provided that the output remains the same:

    As a light source gets closer to a subject, the light softens, the rate at which the light falls off increases and the intensity of the light increases.

    As a light moves away from a subject, the light hardens, the rate of fall off is reduced and the intensity decreases.

    The change in the background exposure in the example images is a result of the change in the rate of fall off and isn’t affected by how soft or hard the light is.

    Here’s the Wikipedia article for Soft Light: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_light

  • John McIntire

    Thanks for adding that Mandi! Coincidentally, that’s exactly how I explained it to my wife when she asked a while back!

  • Mandi Lunt Burnham

    Very cool. 🙂

  • photodittmer

    the technical advice aside, why do so many photographers feel the need to objectify their female modes like this? This poor woman looks like some kind of exotic bird run over by a truck. She likely agreed to this work because the money was good, and/or she’s too young to recognize the impact of what she’s contributing to. What gives????

  • Marc Smedley

    There is one thing that I find is never covered as far as setting go when using off camera flash, be it with a light modifier like a softbox or bare flash, is a detailed account of the flash settings. Most tutorials only cover the flash power, what about zoom? what zoom settings are used and how do you determine this setting?

    I have one flash and a softbox and i’m still learning how to use them but I don’t know if I should be changing the flash zoom under these circumstances

  • Lauren Stables

    As the model, all I can say thank you for being offended on my behalf, though it is really not necessary: I’m a 28 year old professional model, who also happens to be good friends with John.
    Would you care to explain what you mean by the “impact of what (I’m) contributing to”, as I clearly have no idea what I’m doing with my life.
    I’m assuming you’re trying to make some sort of feminist point here? Well, the beauty of feminism is that it’s not for you (or any other man or woman)to decide what is empowering or objectifying for another woman. It’s each to their own, and not for anyone else to dictate.
    I’m a big girl, and I make my own, educated, life choices.
    So again, thanks for being offended on my behalf, but it’s really not necessary.

  • Chris

    I know this is an old thread, but after reading the Wiki you linked, I’m convinced that Josh is right. Both size and distance affect the hardness of light, but they specifically reference a light source getting closer to the subject and that makes the light harder.

    Check it again.

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