One Speedlight Portrait Lighting Tutorial

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If you’ve ever wondered how to improve the look of your portraits using only one speedlight, then make sure you read every single word on this page. It isn’t so much the type or quality of the speedlight you are using; it is more about how you modify and shape the light, that will help you to improve the overall look of your portraits.

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Let’s break speedlight portrait lighting down into three simple action steps that are easy for you to follow:

Step 1: Get the speedlight off-camera

Start by first getting your speedlight off of your camera. In order to trigger your strobe once it is off of your camera, you will need a remote trigger such as a Cactus V6 that I am using in the video below. You can also use a Pocket Wizard or any number of different triggers that are available on the market. The key is to be able to remotely fire your speedlight, so you are free to modify, and position your light source for more flattering results.

Check out the video below for a video demonstration of a one light, speedlight beauty lighting set up.

Step 2: Add a light modifier

Next step is to increase the size of your light source by using a speedlight modifier. The key to improving the quality of the light is this; the larger the light source and the closer the light is to your subject, the softer the light will appear. As a general guideline for a starting position, I suggest you put your light roughly the same distance as its diameter from your subject.

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For example if your speedlight modifier is three feet (36″) in diameter (or 91cm), you can start by placing your modifier the same distance from your subject. In the image above I placed my light in the butterfly lighting position and used a white reflector for fill. This type of lighting is often referred to as ClamShell lighting or Beauty lighting.

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Step 3: Place your focus on the subject

Once you have your lighting in place, shift your focus to making a connection with the person you are photographing. Pay close attention to the pose and the expression; tests have shown that 60% of people look more attractive from their left side. So make sure you experiment with your subject to find their most flattering side right at the beginning of the portrait session. You can ask them if they have a side they prefer, or you can make a guess based on where they part their hair.

Once you have that figured out, focus on capturing an expression that makes them appear confident in from of the camera. You can have the best lighting in the world ,but if you don’t nail the right expression, you will miss the shot. Look for the position of their eyes and mouth, confidence is portrayed from the eyes and it is something that can make or break a shot.

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Any article about photography isn’t complete unless we talk about the gear used to create the shots. The first image in this series was shot on the Canon 5D MK III with the Canon 100mm Macro lens at ISO 100, f/5.6 and shutter speed 1/160th. The reason you should use a shutter speed of 1/160th on the Canon 5D MK III is to stay within the flash sync-speed. If you shoot at a shutter speed of 1/200th, or faster, you may see a black line in your image because are shooting at a faster shutter speed than your camera can handle when using flash.

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Lighting diagram showing the setup for these images.

The other two images in this series were both shot on the Canon 5D MK III with the Canon 135mm f/2 lens. Both lenses are tack sharp and are great portrait lenses but if you prefer a better bokeh, then I would choose the Canon 135mm f/2. The reason is that the lowest aperture is f/2, and the longer focal length of 135mm will give you a more out of focus background when shot at f/2.

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If you have any questions about the video or article above, I would be more than happy to answer them for you. Just post your questions in the comment section below.

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Craig Beckta

is a Professional Portrait Photographer based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. You can find out more about him at his website, or at Craig Beckta Photography on Facebook. He also has over 65 free photography tutorials on YouTube.

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