One Light Portraits: Simple Elegance

One Light Portraits: Simple Elegance


Update: this post now has a Part 2 with lighting diagrams.

In this case, a reflector was used at camera left, but a neutral colored wall would work just as well. The flash bounces off the reflector, the rear wall picks up some light, and the ceiling picks up some more, illuminating the top of the hair.

Everyone who ever picks up a camera at one point or another finds themselves pointing it at another person.  But unless you walk around with a lighting kit in your back pocket, you have to make do with what you have.  If you’re lucky that means you have a speedlite in your bag.  If not, there are other ways to light your subjects and get a pleasing portrait.

Let’s start with the best case scenario- you have a speedlite on your camera with a swivel head. This gives you the flexibility of TTL exposure, as well as the ability to bounce the flash and avoid the ugliness of direct flash.  Bouncing flash simply means that the flash head is aimed at a surface and the light is reflected back onto your subject.  This softens the light coming from the flash head, and makes it a much more pleasing light source.  The ability to bounce the flash is huge, because a variety of looks can be achieved simply by repositioning the flash head and the surface the light is bouncing off of.  Walls and ceilings are generally pretty easy to bounce off of, but something smaller, such as a reflector, or a piece of white oak tag will work equally well.  The important thing about the surface being used for bouncing is that the color be neutral, such as white or gray.

Positioning the subject in a corner of the room will allow you to use one light to create multiple light sources.  The flash can be aimed at the wall to the side, and angled up to the ceiling to provide a hair light. In addition, the wall being used as the background will provide some back lighting. This will create soft shadows on the unlit side of your subject. It’s important to be sure your subject’s face is turned towards the bouncing surface so they are properly illuminated by the light.

Placing a reflector at waist level and bouncing the flash into the ceiling creates a soft glamor lighting effect. It’s actually a double bounce: once off the ceiling, and then off the reflector.

Another variation on this setup that works well for women and creates a glamor lighting look, is to place a reflector at your subject’s waist.  Bounce the flash directly off the ceiling and have the reflector kick light back up into the subject’s face.

Postioning the softbox to camera left created a soft light that flattered Mary’s facial structure. I positioned her in the shade of a tree, so the flash was sure to be the main light on her, while the background was lit by sunlight.

The next step with a flash is to get it off camera.  All of the major SLR makers offer some sort of wireless flash control. Again, a bare flash tends to not be the best light source. Flash in general is a harsh, unflattering light source.  To soften the light, a modifier is needed.

There are all kinds of modifiers available on the market.  Softboxes are great for portraits because the light is softened, directional, and there is no spill. Umbrellas are great for softening and directing the light, but you get more spill, meaning it’s harder to control what the light does and does not hit.  The basic rule of thumb is, the larger the light source, the softer the light.  So a larger soft box will nicely soften the light and wrap it around your subject, creating soft shadows as well.

The important thing when lighting with a softbox is that the light must hit the mask of the face, either from the softbox or via a reflector. If the face is in shadow, or if features of the face cast unflattering shadows, the portrait is going to be unsuccessful. Generally, positioning the light slightly above and off to the side of the subject will produce the best light.


A softbox positioned behind and to the side of the subject, while a reflector is positioned directly opposite to create a two-light effect.


If you happen to be outdoors, the available daylight works wonders for filling the background as you mix available light with flash.  Position your subject in shade, and light them with a flash and modifier of choice, such as a softbox.  Allow the available light to fill the background, and even create a hairlight.  Indoors, you can create dramatic low-key lighting using one light in a softbox.  Add a reflector, and now you have a two light setup.  The softbox as the main light can be used as a rim light or hair light, and position the reflector so that it bounces light back into your subject’s face.  You’re simply playing angles here, so watch where the light hits and bounce it back to your subject’s face.

This portrait was made using a household lamp with a 75 watt bulb, with a sheer curtain to soften the light. It’s important when using a household lamp to adjust your white balance properly, as the bulbs can range in color from more greenish to yellow.

Now, what if you’re caught without a flash? Simple. Any light source will do.  With today’s DSLRs, higher ISO’s mean greater flexibility in terms of light.  A simple household lamp with a shade can even be a good portrait light.  The important thing again is to watch how the light is falling on your subject.  You may need to manipulate the lamp’s position, or the subject’s position in relation to the lamp.  If the shade dims the light too much, remove the shade, and find another way to modify the light.  It could be as simple as rigging a sheer curtain in front of the lamp to create a scrim.

A single softbox will create more dramatic lighting. In this case, a large, 50 inch softbox was used creating a soft, dramatic light.

The bottom line is, no matter what, as long as you have light, you have the ability to make a great photo.  The key is simply being able to see the light, play the angles, and think outside the box when necessary.

See Part 2 of this post at One Light Portraits: The Diagrams where Rick illustrates how each of the images above was lit with diagrams.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Michele Ploss May 14, 2013 05:12 pm

    I just wanted to thank you for writing a very helpful article about lighting. This is just the thing that I am needing to learn more about at the moment.

  • Stanley Parrish Jr May 8, 2013 01:23 am

    Very nice article! thanks so much.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt May 1, 2013 03:09 pm

    @rick - #3 okay that makes sense, thanks.

    #4 I saw a second shadow and a second catch light in the eyes that's pretty much dead center so has to be coming from that trigger flash. That's why I asked.

  • Rick Berk April 30, 2013 10:27 pm

    @Darlene, Number 3 also had some sunlight spilling in under the tree I was using. That created that second shadow. Number 4, there was no on-camera fill flash. I did have an on-camera flash as a trigger for the off-camera ones but it was not firing for exposure.

  • Darlene April 30, 2013 09:16 am

    @barb yes I noticed the jumbo head thing too and it did bother me. I thought it might have been photoshopped to slim her hips and a wider lens that 50

    Rick you say image #3 is just one softbox to camera left but I see two shadows under her nose. One directly under like an overhead light and it's quite harsh with a strong edge transfer shadow. The shadow on her neck indicates the same, strong light overhead. Then the second soft shadow under her nose to the the left in the image which confuses me cause your light is on the left so shouldn't the shadow fall to the right?

    One image #4 are you using a small on camera flash as fill here too? It is also producing a harsh (edge is sharp again) shadow on the right side of her face (as we look at it not her actual right side). I see the softbox light as the kicker on the side of her face. Then the reflector is making another shadow on the other side of her nose so there's cross shadows happening. What am I missing here?

  • Philippe Monthoux April 14, 2013 01:40 am

    Thanks for the info. I will definitely try bouncing the flash off the ceiling with a reflector underneath. I'm very impressed with the result you got.

  • taren terrill April 13, 2013 09:00 am

    Love these images I can't wait to try to recreate this!

  • taren terrill April 4, 2013 07:17 am

    Love this can't wait to use these tips just starting to learn studio lights

  • Amélie Cousineau March 23, 2013 03:20 am

    Thank you for the amazing tips and tricks. The entire text as well as the comments above are useful. There's so much that we can learn as photographers in order to add spice to our work. You guys rock!

  • Owen March 16, 2013 04:41 pm

    I think it's a good tutorial, it's probably because it's just for a tutorial piece that some of the images were not done like it should be. Blow out's and stuff like that, but the technique was there and the results were given so for me this is a good article to learn from using a single light source for taking portraits, great job

  • P. Naik March 9, 2013 07:26 am

    Very helpful post. It does give amazing results. With my Vivitar 285 on Lumix G3 I am able to get similar results with minor tweaking of position of flash. Thanks a lot.

  • Budhead March 3, 2013 02:23 pm

    Gorgeous pics, #2 is stunning. Loved the article, can't wait to see some setups explained.

  • ju farhad January 3, 2013 01:17 am

    all portrait pic are nice....

  • Shane January 2, 2013 04:49 pm

    Great post. I mainly do landscape but would love to master off camera flash.

    Thanks for this guide.

  • Len December 29, 2012 12:17 pm

    All comments are useful and everybody comes in at a different level so some will have it go right over their heads and others will say YES or NO ..No body need get toey over a comment and should just look and make your own judgment and then everybody wins.
    When you put images up and leave space for comments then I guess you have to expect replies .If nobody commented I guess you'd say you never did your job ... keep smiling...

  • Lisa Marie December 29, 2012 06:46 am

    I have noticed some comments that bothered me, but I see it a lot with people that are "so much better photographers'" then everyone. It is a bit frustrating seeing people put down other photographers, as we all started somewhere. I just wanted to say thank you. Your emails and constant new educational lessons really are helpful to me. This was one of my favorites, because I have SO much to learn about lighting. The little things I have seen that have been critiqued....they just don't seem to matter as much as the whole basis of what you are teaching.

    Again, thank you! I appreciate the fact that you are so willing to teach us so much~!


  • Beaucon December 29, 2012 04:37 am

    The images used in the lesson each demonstrate the quality of light created when using the technique they illustrate. In this sense they are 100% successful. The point of this lesson was to broaden the students lighting vocabulary, to enable them to avoid the “deer in the headlights” look created by direct flash on camera. The scope of this lesson was clearly stated at the very beginning and the rest of the article was skillfully limited to this scope.
    Asking the teacher if he photo chopped one head onto a second body implies some very unflattering assumptions regarding teacher’s artistic integrity. Even if the question was about the choice of focal length, it would still be off topic.
    To nitpick quality of the pose of the models head or hands, or the lack of any post production corrections, is to completely miss the opportunity to add real value to the lesson at hand. Then to reiterate the same smug comments with a smiley and Merry Christmas just destroys the tone of this thread. Such lack of comprehension about the point of the lesson combined with the lack of respect for the teacher, would earn you time in the corridor in grade school. Hopefully we can expect better in the future. Those comments may be more germane in a lesson entitled, “Lighting and Posing the Live Model Like a Pro” but that remains debatable. Since there is an entire section of this site dedicated to Photo Criticism, I would lobby for a moderation policy that allows the author of the lesson to approve or reject comments based on the following criteria.
    • Is the question stated with sufficiently respect?
    • Does it apply directly to the lesson at hand?
    • Is this a question that expands the group’s understanding of the lesson or a critique designed to draw attention away from the lesson and toward the poster.

    In a live class room the teacher has the benefit of immediate rebuttal to the self absorbed student whose behavior threatens to take a lesson off track. The online class room offers no such option. For this reason I would first urge respondents to self moderate their behavior and then allow the presented wide latitude to moderate the comments.

  • Dominik December 26, 2012 02:50 am

    Great article, I will try to use your tips in the next shooting. You have great models too :)

  • Len December 5, 2012 11:01 am

    I guess I took too long to say re-shoot it ..:) Mate those eyes and the catch lights are not pleasing . You know as I do that the eyes are just turned too far around OR the lighting could have been feathered to keep the flare out of the eye . Just bad positioning of posing and the light position.
    The hands still annoy me and look very unflattering so how else can I say it ..:) But life is too short so enjoy it . When you have a lovely model like this then i guess you can be excused for getting a little side tracked from the job at hand ... have a Very Merry Christmas ...

  • Mike Stanway December 4, 2012 08:11 am

    Rick, thanks so much for the straight forward and instructive article, keep 'em coming. BTW, you are SO RIGHT about breaking rules! The last shot (looking back over the shoulder) is my favorite of the group, it's daring, illicits something sexy and a little mysterious from the model, and I particularly like how the shadow transitions from her left arm to her back giving a bit of depth.

    Barb and Len: Your observations and opinions are valid, but in both criticism and life, what you say can get lost in how you say it.

  • Len November 20, 2012 10:49 pm

    Hi and back again as that reply to the posing never appeared ? I commented on the hands as it appears no body told the model what to do with her hands and it looks like a bunch of spaghetti and is very unflattering ...
    I know it is easy to pick someone elses work to bits BUT when it is the teacher I guess he can take it ..:)

  • LEN November 20, 2012 12:18 pm

    I see my reply to the above has not yet made the list ... Someone else did say that anything contra to a Rah Rah did take a while to surface ... :) I see the choice of lens for the portrait and yes i like 100 on a 35 mm and always used a 150 on the blad which was 70mm square . Just needs to be long enough so you are not in their face and yet you can still communicate and extract the gleam in the eyes. all good .

  • Sara Coffey November 20, 2012 05:30 am

    Rick, I enjoyed this article very much, the lighting is beautiful! I dont have a studio & have been using CFL bulbs in clamp lights. This has worked rather well, but I need more light. I have a couple of old inexpensive flashes that dont swivel. Couldnt I use these on a stand w/ a scrim and w/ the right wiring to the camera?

  • Rick Berk November 18, 2012 03:29 am

    @Len- Obviously I don't agree or the shot would not have been included. Yes I'm aware of the "rules" of posing but they were made to be broken. I find the combination of lighting and flirtatious facial expression overrides the slight no no of twisting her neck a little. It's not like she looks like Linda Blair in The Exorcist! ;)

  • Al November 17, 2012 10:51 pm

    I noticed the "big head" thing too, Barb. Thanks for the link, it was very helpful in explaining what was going on.

  • Rick Berk November 17, 2012 01:24 pm

    Thank you everyone for the comments. I'm working on a part two complete with diagrams.

    @barb- the top photo was taken with a 24-105 @50mm. Yes, a little shorter than I'd like, but I don't find the effect you're discussing objectionable. The problem may be slightly exacerbated by the way her shoulders are twisted away from the camera.
    The second photo was taken with a 100mm f/2.8 macro, of course it will be more compressed and thus more flattering.

  • Barb November 17, 2012 01:21 am

    My comment is awaiting moderation? Oh, I see, negative comments aren't posted because someone might actually learn something from them! I thought the word "school" included in this site meant that learning was the objective. I understand the article is about lighting, but lens distortion is something I have struggled with & seeing it here in an example photo, I thought, produced a good learning opportunity. I wasn't able to find any good articles on this site about lens distortion, but on the web I found this:

    I think the link above pretty much nails what the problem is in that top portrait.

  • Nishant Krishnan November 16, 2012 10:28 pm

    Photos are too good ...Liked the article very much... I am very much interested in the Portrait Photography ,this guidance i will definitely implement in my work of experimenting with lights..

  • Ka Linin November 16, 2012 07:05 pm

    Hi Rick,

    Great article, useful tips. I am going to print it out and stick to the wall for some time just as a memory refresher:-)

    Thanks a lot!

  • box185 November 16, 2012 02:35 pm

    The lighting is great for skin and hair, but the highlights in the lip gloss are distracting in images 1 & 2. This is especially true for image 2.

  • Brent November 16, 2012 02:20 pm

    Great article. Very easy to understand and very informative. Some stunning shots here! Thank You!

    Brent Davis

  • Lisa Marie November 16, 2012 11:46 am

    Nothing is easy for me. haha. I sort of see in their eyes..but not everyone. But I have seen, in the past, a photo of someone and then the shot where they back up and you see all of the lighting. It has been a while, but for someone like me..yeah...that definitely would help a lot more. (not complaining..just hoping somewhere there is a spot for things like that) :)

  • ccting November 16, 2012 10:47 am

    well., it is easy to see how the lights are setup. Look into their eyes... Usually reflectors are used for 1 light source, where i believe you have lesser controls on the intensity of reflected lights. ..

  • Angie November 16, 2012 10:13 am

    Great article-thank you!

  • Len November 16, 2012 08:59 am

    replying to that last portrait of over the shoulder of the gorgeous girl in the lacy top .I feel the eyes are turned too far around and there are nasty flairs in the eyes that need spotting out . Also that shooting into the shoulder is an old NO NO > Look what it does to the creases in the neck and it is so hard to have to eliminate . . Body and head Just turned too far and so is a shocker ... sorry .

  • David Oliveras November 16, 2012 05:42 am

    Great article with clear, concise instructions on lighting. Often times a simple, single light set up can produced exceptional results as the photos here illustrate. Great job. I love making use of what's available. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get awesome shots!

  • German November 16, 2012 05:39 am

    Thanks for all the work you share with us.

  • Barb November 16, 2012 04:20 am

    In the top photo the model's head looks freakishly huge. Her head appears to be the same size as her entire torso! It looks like the next photo down is the same model and you can see there that her head is NOT actually freakishly huge. Is the top photo photo-shopped or is it bad lens choice or composition? Am I the only one seeing this??

  • Lisa November 16, 2012 04:18 am

    Love this so much. I wouldn't mind looking like the models too. hehe. I would love it if you have a set up that shows HOW you set up the lights too. I am really still a newbie but have always been fascinated by lighting. I just don't know what to do :) Thanks so much

  • alex long November 15, 2012 10:47 am

    What is generally the best lens to bring alone and a tripod for people who like to shoot in existing light without carrying too. heavy? thanks and good day.

  • Bryan November 15, 2012 04:31 am

    Great photos and talking about the lighting, but it would have been really nice to see actual setup shots with the final photos.

  • Sananda November 15, 2012 03:44 am

    The positions of the light and given examples are really awesome. Very nice article.

  • Giorgio November 14, 2012 09:16 pm

    Wonderful wonderful light scheme !!!! i love it !!! but for a very good results i want also your amazing models !!! :D

  • Dewan Demmer November 14, 2012 11:33 am

    I liked the article, it helps people realise you do not need a whole arrangement of lights to make a photo come together, especially if you have reflective surfaces to bounce off of.

    Now in this link I had a number of photos with one speedlight, most of the formal images, and I am back to playing with a single off camera, although no TTL for me , I run on manual:

    I do believe if a person can take the time to get comfortable and master a single off camera flash, when it comes time to add an extra light source everything will have been learnt and understood, the rest is just maths and feel.

  • Barry E. Warren November 14, 2012 03:32 am

    Most of my photo's are done in nature light, But as winter approaches I will be indoors more. and will try these methods. thanks for the info.

  • Guigphotography November 13, 2012 05:35 am

    Lots of great tips and examples, thank you! I'm a fan of natural light and love split lighting, though I've found a single reflector to be great for an outdoor shot, if simply to save the poor subject from staring directly into the sun!

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 13, 2012 03:38 am

    The actual setting and positions of the lighting could have a helped a lot in images than just in words as mentioned above. Nice writing, and great photographs.