In this article, I’ll give the virtues and benefits of shooting simply, with only one light and a reflector.
Lighting is often perceived as a complicated beast, but does it have to be? Sure, in terms of technical aspects, there’s an awful lot to learn before you can truly master lighting. There are also plenty of techniques that involve numerous light sources at various power outputs, rigged together with any number of modifiers.
But are these necessary? If you want to learn every aspect of lighting inside and out, then the answer is yes. However, when you are a beginner, I would argue that it’s far too easy to get bogged down in those complications when in reality, you could conceivably go an entire photographic career without touching them.
With a single light source and a reflector for fill, you have enough creative options in terms of lighting that you could go an entire lifetime with nothing more and still fill a diverse and varied portfolio. Technically the reflector is a second light source if you want to get into that, but it’ll be referred to as a reflector for our purposes here.
You may not want to and it’s more than likely that once you’ve got the basics of lighting down, you’ll want to dive deeper and deeper until you get to those ultra complicated set-ups, but it is possible. One light set-ups can give you both dramatic, shadowy photos which ooze mood as well as bright, cleanly lit images with plenty of detail throughout.
On top of that, there’s only one light to set up, only one light to modify and only one light to meter. If you’re working with limited time, say 20 minutes to set up, take a few shots and get out of there.
Four, five and six light set-ups just aren’t going to be an option. Of course, it’s also a whole lot easier to lug around one light then it is to take five.
Terms you need to know
This article will cover examples that are based in a studio where all ambient light is cut out (with one exception) and bounce is controlled through light placement or flags. As such, the light and the reflector are the only things lighting the images and each has its own respective role.
Key Light – The key light is your main light source. In these instances, it’s the actual strobe. It could just as easily be any other type of light source such as a window or a street light. This is the main light that you will be shaping your subject with.
Fill Light – In these examples, the fill light is the job of the reflector. When placed opposite the key light, the reflector bounces light back onto your subject and fills in the shadows. This helps to reduce contrast and also tends to lead to more flattering images of human subjects. A fill light does not have to be a reflector. Again, it could be any light source that acts independently of your key light to fill in shadows on your subject.
In all of these examples (except one that’s annotated), the reflector used is a large, cheap 5-in-1 reflector. You can buy one of these from just about anywhere that sells photo equipment for around $20 or less. Sure, there are expensive versions, but in my experience, they’re not worth the extra money. Get a good sized (32″ or 42″) cheap one and take it everywhere. Don’t be too precious with it and let it get dirty, battered and warped through use. They’re easily replaced.
If you don’t want to buy one, reflectors are pretty easy to make. White foamcore, posterboard, cardboard painted white, or a styrofoam insulation are all easily turned into reflectors.
Since the specific focus of this article is portraits, all of the modifiers used range from fairly big to huge. This is so that the light was as soft and flattering as possible. You can absolutely use a single hard light source with a reflector, so don’t consider the absence of examples of hard light here to be some kind of rule against it.
This shot is about as simple as it gets. The subject was placed a few feet from the background. The light source was a 5-foot octabox which was placed at forty-five degrees from the subject. The distance of the light was determined by watching how the modeling light fell on the subject and where the catchlights were in her eyes. It ended up about five feet away.
Because the octabox is quite a big modifier, it would have been possible to get away without using a reflector. The soft light the large modifier produces would wrap around the subject in a pleasing way. It also means that the subject could turn and face any direction she wanted for posing.
Regardless, I still chose to add a reflector to bring up the shadow side. It was placed as close to the subject as possible so as not to interfere with composition.
Much like the first example, this image was created with the light source at a 45-degree angle to the subject. This time, the modifier was a mid-sized 2×3′ softbox.
To get the softest quality of light, it was placed as close as possible to the model without interfering with image composition. There are few things as annoying as having to retouch the corner of a softbox or a beauty dish out of every frame.
This time, the reflector was turned slightly away from the light source. This was because I didn’t want the full surface area of the reflector to be filling in the scene as I wanted to retain some of the dramatic lighting that the single smallish light source provided.
This is exactly the same set up as the previous example, all that changed here was the modifier.
The softbox was exchanged for a beauty dish to increase contrast and add drama. The reflector was turned slightly so that it had maximum impact on the shadow side.
To really take advantage of the contrasty lighting possible with one light, I opted for a large, gridded beauty dish in this example. Again, placed at forty-five degrees (notice a pattern here?), the light fall-off is much more abrupt than here, as compared with the bigger softboxes.
At 120 cm, this particular beauty dish is quite a bit larger than normal. As such, it is still quite soft, with a bit more wraparound than its smaller, more normal sized siblings.
A silver reflector was added to bring up the shadow side of the subject in order to ensure separation from the background and to keep the shadows from becoming pure black.
In a previous article, I wrote that you may very well never use a gold reflector. I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I wrote it and endeavoured to do exactly that. Instead of using the gold side of a normal 5-in-1 reflector, I used a Westcott Omega reflector, on which the gold is far subtler and less intrusive, making it much, much more flattering for portraits.
The key light in this image was a five foot octobox. If you look at the catchlights, you will see two other light sources. To camera left, there was a wall of windows which was underexposed by a stop to act as fill. To camera right is the gold reflector.
By adding a single light source to the ambient light, you get an incredible amount of versatility of what you can achieve.
This image was created exactly the same way as the previous one with the same octabox and the same gold reflector. This time, however, the power output of the flash was turned up so that it killed the ambient light from the windows. The reflector was also placed slightly to the rear of the subject in order to bring detail back into her hair.
One technique that I really love is to place the light source directly in front of the model (it’s okay to move it to the side a bit so that you can shoot past it) and as close as possible. With a single light, this can create some lovely, dramatic images. This was done with a large beauty dish.
The white reflector was placed flat and rested on the subject’s knees. This results in a makeshift clamshell technique, but instead of two lights, you’re only using one.
I could go on and on and on about this. The point here is to remind you to never forsake the power of simplicity when it comes to lighting techniques.
Sure, those set-ups with half a dozen lights, three reflectors, nine flags, your neighbor’s dog and a Swiss passport are great and you should absolutely explore them. Just be mindful that not every job has to rely on such complexities. Stripping things back to basics can, and does yield wonderful results.
Here are a few tips and trick to help you get the most out of your single one light source set-ups:
- For portraiture, get the light in close. The larger the apparent light source, the softer the light. The softer the light, the more flattering it is for the subject.
- Don’t just introduce a reflector blind and leave it there. Watch what it’s doing. Use modeling lights and learn to see the subtle differences the reflector creates. It’s hard at first, but with practice, you’ll start seeing the changes.
- Meter with and without the reflector. As the reflector is acting as an independent light source, you can meter its exposure. If you want a specific ratio, or you know you want your fill two stops underexposed, meter it.
- Don’t be afraid to turn the reflector at funny angles. If it’s a large reflector, in particular, you probably don’t want or need the whole surface area in use. Turn it any which way that provides the effect that you’re looking for.
- You don’t shoot with off-camera lighting. So what? All of this applies to window light as well. A light source is a light source.
- Don’t have a reflector? Buy one right now. Seriously. Stop what you’re doing and order one right now. They’re important and they’re not expensive. Godox sells one for less than $15.
- Use these techniques on anything. I’m a portrait photographer, so the focus here has been portraits. But every single aspect covered here can be used when lighting any subject at all. Flowers? Check. Animals? Check. Food? Check.
In terms of variations on these techniques, this article hasn’t been anywhere near comprehensive. Honestly, using a single light and a reflector will give you an infinite variety of techniques to use in your photography.
When you’re starting out, I strongly encourage you to explore these as much as possible before moving on to more complicated set-ups as you may find, that most situations would benefit from the simplicity.