How to Light a Portrait with a Single LED

How to Light a Portrait with a Single LED


Previously we explored the idea of creating beautiful portraits with a single LED. In this post, Christina N Dickson will give 2 short tutorials on the LED portrait.

The LED for On-Location:

location.jpgThere will be times in your on location portraiture sessions when the available light is just too dim or weak to create an even portrait. Getting rid of shadows and adding catch-lights in this scenario is impossible unless you bring in another light source. An LED is a quick and non-imposing way of adding just enough light to create an artistic flair to your portrait.

1. Position your subject near the primary light source. In this case, window light is my main light and illuminates my subject. I turn my subject into the light until her skin is appears soft and luminous.

2. Add the LED. Rather than the LED acting as my main light, I use it to soften the transfer edges of the highlights and shadows along my subjects face. I am able to maintain shape and depth along her face without having harsh and distracting shadows.

3. Pull the LED away from your subject: If the LED is too close to your subject, the lighting will become flat – especially if we are using the LED as a fill light. Move the LED away from your subject as much as possible while still filling in and softening the shadows just a bit.

The LED for Studio:

studio.jpgIf you don’t own strobes or speed lights, you may not be as limited with off camera lighting as you think. LED’s can help you create extremely artistic portraits without a lot of financial investment. Here’s a look at using the LED for a studio like portrait.

1. Place your subject away from your backdrop. If the area behind your subject is dark, you’ll create a nice, black backdrop – no matter where you are. For this portrait. my subject is 5 feet in front of a dark hallway wall.

2. Get rid of all other light. To create a contrasty portrait, eliminate other light sources. Though you are using a single LED, the light will be more even and controlled without other competing light sources.

3. Position your LED. For a close up portrait with no other light sources, you will want to position the LED, 1 foot above and 2 feet away from your subject. This distance will enable you to cast light evenly along the face, and you won’t have to worry about distracting shadows falling under the eyes or the edge of the nose.

An LED can be purchased at Wal Mart or Amazon for $10 to $20 and is a pretty simple solution to acquiring an additional, easy to use light source for any off camera need.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Erin September 13, 2013 04:23 am

    Welcome to the world of the internet people, if you do not know what an LED light is use your friend Google to help you out or just read the previous article or browse through the comments, it would take less time to get your answer than to complain about it..

  • Penny Sadler March 22, 2013 08:27 am

    great article. simple and direct. love it. especially like the tip about blocking all other light sources.

  • Dana December 16, 2011 09:52 am

    Small LED flashlights or even single LED super bright pocket lights can provide excellent lighting effects. I think the article was spot on and there are allot of replies that are unwarranted complaining about not enough information. Instead of bashing the author, do some research or hey, try an LED lighting source yourself. I think you would be amazed at what they can do. For those with technical knowledge, there are great sources such as that one can purchase various power and color temperature LEDS from and roll your own lighting.

    LEDs, as mentioned above, come in various colors and temperatures as well as power outputs. Creatively using some color LEDs to enhance or set a scene is pretty cool. The great part is that this technology is readily available and cheap for anyone to try.

  • Tom_Vienna November 8, 2011 06:38 pm

    Thx Christina!
    thats a very helpful tip! I always love to try out your recommendations and i use many of them regulary :-)

    @ the Guys which don´t know what a LED is and which do not know how to behave and ask politely at the same time - maybe shouldn’t be in any creative busines like photography. sorry

  • Robyn October 12, 2011 01:04 pm

    If you use the LED, I dare say we are not using a flash also here?

  • Pisces May 14, 2011 03:02 am

    Here's a thought. How about we ask for clarification if we have questions.
    It's comical that all the posts are about "what's a LED?" & in some instances someone's expert opinion of such. Not 1 question was about how would LED work in different scenarios, could I use LED..., etc...

    There's NO "dumb" question. Please, should you have a question, just ask.

    On that note, many thanks to DPS & author for sharing.

  • jeff whitfield April 23, 2011 09:28 pm

    You can purchase a 160 LED Video Light from ebay for around £58.00. It can be used for still photography as well as video. The light can either be mounted on top of your camera using the hot shoe or it can be hand held with the grip that is supplied. I also think you can mount it on a tripod for more versatilty.

    I am not sure about the results you would get using one of these, but I have just viewed Masters of Wedding Photography part 2 in which Jerry Ghionis and Yervant both used a video light to light their subjects and both these world leading Photographers stated that digital photography does not work well with flash and therefore every photographer should include a video light as an essential part of their kit. The video light they were using was not an LED light source but a tungsten light source made by Lowell. It is portable and comes with its own small portable battery pack. The only downside is the price. They retail for around £360.

    I hope that puts some light on the subject!

  • Tom March 26, 2011 07:16 am

    I have more than half a dozen LED-powered lighting devices. They range from 1 to 36 LEDs. I inferred from the author's text that she was suggesting fairly close use, and so she was talking about a low powered device. Therefore I tried using both my one- and three-LED torches. At a distance of about 30 to 40 cm. Highly effective. If I want to move the lighting source further away, then I'll use a more powerful unit. Thanks for the article Christina.

  • John March 5, 2011 01:26 am

    Unfortunately the author got the acronym a little wrong in the first post, and then used the reference thru out the post without realizing the confusion. L.E.D. stands for Light Emitting Diode, not Device, it seems most of the confusion would have been corrected if the proper reference had been made.

  • lighting November 2, 2010 05:10 pm

    yes , LEDs' light performance much more well ,because it is the best lighting source to replace sunshine at workroom .also high power LEDs have benn used at day lighting ,not just at signal performance or limitted areas !
    welcome LED lighting ever

  • Jonh Robinson May 27, 2010 06:38 pm

    I also like LED TV too, before getting my new tv I have viewed many sites, finally I found this one site that provide all information of LED TV that help me make a purchase decision and also service me in good quality. Don't trust me if you don't view this site on your own eyes! or

  • Luis Howard May 12, 2010 04:16 am

    Led lights are great because they are long lasting and consumes less electricity.",.

  • MH Media April 22, 2010 01:10 am

    Aha! Thank you for this article: as a result I've just ordered a twin-headed "music stand" LED battery powered lamp which has an integral clip for $25. I'll be using this on my model who gets really freaked out by my usual flash rig :-)

  • Jim News March 12, 2010 03:29 pm

    Had this been a post on using natural light, would the author have been required to explain, in technical detail, what the sun is and how it works? Constructive comments are helpful, rude rantings are not.
    Having said that, I didn't see that FredF was being rude, he was just asking a question about the light.
    Christina, thank you for your article. LED is yet another tool for making pictures and I appreciate you showing how it can be used.

  • Tara December 18, 2009 01:41 am

    Okay, generally the comments section provides some additional insight but I only had to go three responses down to see that I wasn't going to get much out of this discussion. It's a knowledge sharing site and this article is incredibly helpful to a beginner such as myself. I hope that some of you remember that next time you decide to tear someone a new one because you're nit picking and you have nothing better to do. Your photographic knowledge doesn't become superior just because you harrass a contributor. Get over yourself.

  • FredF November 2, 2009 01:23 am

    des chalkley
    Finally someone else that "gets it". I was beginning to think I was in the twilight zone with some of these ridiculous responses. I made a simple "suggestion" (go back and actually read it folks, if you want to call it anything else, you have a serious problem) that more information would have proved helpful. My my, what a terrible thing I did. Good bye children. I will waste no more time here.

  • DEs Chalkley November 1, 2009 04:08 pm

    You speak of an "LED"in future explain !There are a 100s of differant leds people who do not live in a country where they have wall mart cannot know what you are talking about!so you are waisting your time and the readers.I am surprised the editeur did not pick this up
    Des Chalklet France

  • shoo October 31, 2009 10:54 pm

    agreed Jane. keep up the good work Darren. Great site!

  • Jane October 31, 2009 12:02 pm

    Exactly Venkat!
    I believe we would be better off without your comments Fred.
    There are tutorials, explanations and examples on painting with light etc on most every photography based website and chat forum on the internet.

  • Jerry October 31, 2009 10:50 am

    First, thank you Ms. Dickson for the inspiration. This is a great idea I intend to try.

    Wow! I'm amazed at the difficulty people are having with this. To quote the first article "The LED [Light Emitting Device]...." So this is not not an LED - light emitting diode, as us electronics people might assume. This could be a match, a candle, a flashlight, an LED flashlight, a glow stick, an iPhone display, the front of your car (OK maybe I've gone too far), etc. I think this is one of the points of the article. Don't look for a specific device. Look for a device that emits light and give it a shot and see what works!

  • venkat October 31, 2009 04:33 am

    Come on guys! Thank her for the tips and move on. If you don't know what an LED is, may be you shouldn't be in the business of photography. You can find these flashlights and stick on wall lights in any general or hardware store, its all over the place. What next, you want to be told where the shutter button is?

  • -P October 31, 2009 04:23 am

    Just joined this forum, looking to relearn the basics and move on. Interesting to note that there is such a big hang up on grammar and semantics. This is meant to be a "sharing" learning site. Trial and error are often the best learning tools. Criticism like this which de-value's the authors generosity of time and willingness to share what ever technical content, leads me to believe comes from ungrateful, "haters" jumping on a spot light to attract attention. In my philosophy rudeness beckons rudeness, so "get a life". We are all looking to learn and grow, if it is not the content you are looking for, just click to a different link, or even forum. and let's not forget this is the internet, accessible at any and all. -Peace out.

  • FredF October 30, 2009 09:31 am

    Bitch & Jane
    Thanks, but I stand by my original comment.
    Your description of "a torch" leaves just as much to be desired. It is meaningless.
    If you have descriptive information to share on the subject, please do, but if all you can do is take exception to someone's legitimate questions and concerns, we'd all be better off without it.

  • Jane October 30, 2009 08:40 am

    Dear Lord this is all too much to take in before work!!
    She's talking about a torch..... different torches will produce different kinds of light...... just experiment with what you have at home and perhaps try reading the other articles written on this topic for further information.

  • CAPPY October 30, 2009 05:59 am

    I too am confused as to what an LED is......I have no idea what to look for in Walmart which is a very big place....A picture would be helpful...THANKS!!

  • Bitch October 30, 2009 04:14 am

    Hey common guys, give the author a break! Dont you have common sense that "LED" here means torchlight and how in the world would you use a single LED to light a subject? Its pretty obvious here in her examples the way she lighted her subjects that a torchlight was used. Just use that thing between your head and dont make a big drama about the choice of words. She wrote the article, you saw her examples, you read she had written, now go out there and try if for yourself and experiment, thats what photography is all about! Dont just complain there with your silly little asses and whine about! Get a life!

  • Fred F October 30, 2009 01:46 am

    Would have been very helpful to include an image of the LEDs, along with a diagram of how they were positioned, especially how they were mounted.

  • Fred F October 30, 2009 01:38 am

    An image of the "LED" along with an illustration of its placement would have been very helpful.

  • Barrowboy October 28, 2009 02:56 am

    I'm just confused about one thing...what's an LED?

  • DM|ZE October 25, 2009 03:49 pm

    Nice idea, I have a small flashlight in my pocket all the time for work, I've found it comes in handy when I'm shooting quite a bit too! Thanks for the article.

  • Michael October 25, 2009 12:56 pm

    Hi Christina -

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. It a nice starting point for some exploration, and I'm sure it will add something to at least one image that I make.

    For all the haters out there, please post a link to the articles that you've written. I'm sure they are very good.


  • Jesper Revald October 25, 2009 04:18 am

    Another important shortcoming of LED light is that the color spectrum they illuminate is narrower than that of natural light. For black and white images this wouldn't matter, but for color pictures you get less "life" in the colors presented. There's also the before mentioned lack of color balance to normal daylight/flash, not to mention an even greater difference when combined with other warmer light sources like tungsten or dimmed lights.

    But hey - in a pinch it's a lot better than having no light :) Thanks for the article.

  • Marek October 24, 2009 05:46 pm

    Great article!.... and to those complaining, I think you are all intelligent enough to know what Christina meant by saying "a Single LED" or not?!

  • Marek October 24, 2009 05:46 pm

    Great article!.... and to those complaining, I think you are all intelligent enough to know what Christina meant by saying "a Sinle LED" or not?!

  • Juan October 24, 2009 03:29 pm

    @ jc and chris
    Great to see the other face of the so called artists of photography. This is much more than "Nice job, I really like it" or "Keep on working like that".

    It seems that my comment really pissed some people off, especially those who have said things back at against what I said. I guess it was them the ones who really needed it and the ones who did not read the title.

    By the way "jc"
    You say "thinking processes"

    Let's stop this ping-pong game and accept that your common sense failed when you thought that with a single LED one could floodlight. Don't worry about it; even my common sense failed when I attempted to encourage people to be less rude while writing and more logical when criticizing.

  • Jesse Kaufman October 24, 2009 02:15 pm

    @juan: certainly not with "a" LED ... an "array of LEDs" or "LED-based" TV would be more appropriate ... being a tech person with a solid foundation in hardware, I read "a LED" as "one single LED" ... if they meant an LED flashlight, that's different (however, YES, there are some cheap LED flashlights that only use a single LED) ... it's just a poor choice of wording all around and there's no denying that ... regardless of whether or not someone "should've" read the first article (which I did, by the way and thought it was poorly worded as well: "creating beautiful portraits with a SINGLE LED" ... when the article CLEARLY is NOT talking about a SINGLE LED, but an LED-based devices with an array of LEDs ... simple logic, especially coming from the world of hardware where "single LED" means ONE LIGHT-EMITTING DIOD not "one device powered by one, two, 6, 10, 24 or 48 LEDs that is actually 'LED-based'" ...

  • Juan October 24, 2009 01:54 pm

    @ Chris:
    I just don't like to follow "this kind of games". I'm too old for that; but again, do not be rude when talking nor when writing... You have to know what it means, don't you?

    @ RuggyBearLA:
    Thank you for speaking your mind. You're right; however, my real point is that people nailed down the author for such as insignificant issue; as I say: "A common-sense issue"

    This is not intended to be a propaganda, but then, what do you guys think about that new TV called LED? How does it produce the image?

  • jc October 24, 2009 11:29 am

    It doesn’t do much good to try to remind people what they should have learned in school with grammar and thought processes as abysmal as yours. Oh, and PLEASE learn how to use a coma..."


    I almost applauded you for your witty response, but you had to ruin it by typing 'coma'....

  • Mei Teng October 24, 2009 10:39 am

    Beautiful portraits. Would be great if you could show us the LED used here.

  • Chris October 24, 2009 10:14 am

    You do need to quit calling multiple LED lamps "a LED", it's really confusing to those of us who think of "a LED" as being a single light emitting diode (like it is). I was about ready to try this with a single LED keychain when I first read the article; plus I could not figure out how you were getting that much light out out of one single LED.

  • Chris October 24, 2009 10:08 am

    There is no such thing as free. If I am going to spend my valuable time reading this article and visiting this site so they can make money I want quality content (simple equation: our time on this site = money for DPS). Don't think that I am criticizing their content, I love this site and all of their articles, I am just pointing out your flawed thinking.

  • Chris October 24, 2009 10:02 am

    It doesn't do much good to try to remind people what they should have learned in school with grammar and thought processes as abysmal as yours. Oh, and PLEASE learn how to use a coma...

  • RuggyBearLA October 24, 2009 09:03 am

    Unless they've been removed, I don't see anything here that warrants all this angst, there's really nothing all that hateful. But a good show of manners is always the preferable course of action.

    @Juan, thank you for the reminder of being a good student, you make good observations However, I do feel that constructive criticism to the author is appropriate here... even though this is part of a series, it is reasonable to expect articles to be readable as individual works when they are published separately, even if they are related subject matter. Basic information, such as the nature of the led used here, should be included in each article, particularly when they are the main subject of that article.

    Just because something is free doesn't mean it can't be well written.

    Finally, don't get me wrong. Even though I've offered criticism, I am still grateful that the author has taken the time to write these tutorials, as I am for all the features available here at DPS. I think any author would appreciate constructive criticism that may help guide them to improving their writing skills.

  • Chelsea October 24, 2009 07:17 am

    I think a "hey, did you mean an LED flashlight/lamp/torch etc?" would have been sufficient instead of all the rude comments.

    Also, thanks to the original poster for the tutorial!

  • RuggyBearLA October 24, 2009 06:39 am

    @CMC, while I may agree that some folks were a little more scornful than strictly necessary, it is by no means obvious that she's talking about a flashlight; indeed, it appears from the comment about the related pictures it may be a headlamp. Clearly many folks, myself included, are uncertain as to the nature of the LED discussed here, so perhaps you should consider your own harshness and superiority before speaking out.

  • nicu October 24, 2009 05:17 am

    Good idea but you may want to try a different light source. The LED light is one of the worst lights to use in portraiture. It is rough and unflattering. If you try to put it inside a softbox or maybe bounce it off any surface it loses its power and becomes almost unusable. Last thing I wanted to mention is that the LED light color is usually hard to compensate in a natural environment, you'll need to use gels to adapt.

  • (CMC) October 24, 2009 05:09 am

    Jeez, you guys are a little harsh. Obviously the author is referring to a LED flashlight (or "torch" for non-US English speakers). It would be nice to know if there is a specific model she recommends but come on now...

  • Phil October 24, 2009 04:52 am

    As we know, LED stands for "light-emitting diode"...A single, small light source which, when combined with more LEDs will give you a substantial light source. A single LED will not do that...With all the negative responses, don't you think that further explanation is in order?

  • Mark October 24, 2009 04:15 am

    Got through the whole article and still have no idea what kind of LED light we're talking about. What did you use? How many LEDs in the (I assume) flashlight, how much power, etc.??? Can you show us a photo to illustrate your example, e.g., the window shot without LED and with it, side by side?

  • Juan October 24, 2009 03:46 am

    I don't really want to sound to obvious for those who have been criticizing this post; but there are some very common things that everybody should know from school:

    1. Read properly (skim the text first).
    2. Don't be rude when talking
    3. To get the BEST stuff around the world, i it necessary to pay for it.

    If you fulfill, al least, two of the previous things, then criticize.

    There is a big, "Previously we explored the idea of creating beautiful portraits with a single LED. In this post, Christina N Dickson will give 2 short tutorials on the LED portrait.

    Read more:", just below the headline.

    Read it, then click on the link and you'll see the answer you're looking for.

    Once again; it is O.K that you want perfect free-stuff, that you don't know some echniques a bout reading properly; but please, DO nont be rude when you post a comment; it is outrageous for all the photographic community who is supposed to belong to the artistic one as well.

    By the way; I've been using this technique for about one year, and it is truly amazing!!!!

    Give it a try!

  • Jeff Plum October 24, 2009 03:23 am

    From the sublime to the ridiculous... this site is supposed to be tutorials and tips for everyone, from novices to professionals, and you don't even explain properly what an LED is, you just assume people know what you mean. Any jargon should be explained clearly. You mean a torch, right?

  • Jesse Kaufman October 24, 2009 02:44 am

    @nils I agree ... "a LED" wouldn't provide hardly any light at all ... i was confused as to how they were getting the lighting they showed in the pictures if it was just "a LED" until I realized they were talking about some kind of LED-based flashlight/torch/headlamp/etc

  • T-Will October 24, 2009 02:35 am

    Thanks for the tips. What type of LED lamp are we talking about here?

  • bert October 24, 2009 02:03 am

    Thanks dude. Great one, I have a "LED" too thus I understood what you meant.

    No worries. Explaination was great. Don't have to spoonfeed at all! Cheerios. Waiting to see more frm such kind souls who share stuff!

  • Dov October 24, 2009 01:58 am

    Why not show us the Light that your using as an example

  • Phil Corlis October 24, 2009 01:47 am

    Since this is part two of a series, I suggest folks click the link at the top of the page and read part one where the LED issue is discussed.



  • rod fermin October 24, 2009 01:22 am

    exactly...very helpful tips!

    whenever a situation dictates, we have to adapt and apply fundamental techniques!

    thanks a lot!,

  • Nils October 24, 2009 01:14 am

    You do realize that "a LED" is a single, tiny piece of electronics that costs a few cents? Buying "a LED" would require you to do some soldering to combine it with a power source and a resistor.

    I thing you meant "a LED headlamp or torch". Next time, be more precise so that your readers don't have to stuble across a picture of a headlamp in the related articles to get what you mean.

  • Rick Hanzlik October 24, 2009 01:11 am

    Great Idea but I am a little confused as to what type of LED you are using. Any suggestions?