Studio Portraits - Getting Started With One Light

Studio Portraits – Getting Started With One Light


Working with studio lights can be a daunting process for many photographers. Many find the studio to be a place of fear and anxiety where the sanctity of natural light has vacated and the hauntingly, horrific wasteland of light stands, strobes and modifiers is all that remains.

So how does one meander there way through this alien landscape and find a corridor of comfort in which they can relax? The simplest and often most powerful way to navigate this network of nerves is with a go to one light set-up that will provide a never ending reservoir of great imagery.

Early on when I started shooting with studio lighting, I was always overly concerned with the light. Sounds like a strange comment, huh? You must be thinking, “Of course he should be concerned with the light, it is studio lighting.” As intuitive as that thought might sound, I was always so focused on my light source that what I never paid attention to was the shadows created by the light.

In studio lighting, it is the transition of light to shadow that provides depth, beauty and interest to your photos.

Is this a hard transition with a distinct line and harsh contrast separating the two? Or is it a soft, gradual melting of the light into the shadow? This transition zone is what should be the focus of your attention when getting into studio lighting.

How do these shadows change with a large, soft light close to your subject or a small, harsh light placed several feet from your subject? These are concepts that need to be experimented with and understood and the best way to do it is to practice.

So let’s go ahead and give you a place to get started and begin to nurture your studio skills.

Keep it Simple

The best way to get started with studio lights is to keep it simple. This means one light and one light only.

That way if you don’t like what you see while you are shooting, you only need to adjust, move, or tweak one thing. You will not be fiddling around with everything and getting lost in the set-up. You will be able to keep your attention on your subject and the shoot. Also, use a large, diffuse light modifier that throws light like a hand grenade at your subject such as a shoot through umbrella (no smaller than 36 inches).

Light Source

My favorite go to light modifier for these cases is a Westcott 5 foot Octabox. I recommend using a large light source so that you can light both your subject and your background at the same time. Also, I recommend a diffused light source to soften the quality of the light and prevent extreme hot spots on your subject. Make it big, cause really, its okay if the light seems to go everywhere when you are starting out.

Okay, we have picked a light source, now where do we place it?

Light Placement

Without getting into too much physics, basically the closer the light source is to your subject the softer the light will be, giving you a nice gradual transition from light to shadow.

Subsequently, the farther the light source is from your subject, the more harsh the light gets and you get a harder transition form light to shadow.

Ultimately, you should try both scenarios to learn more about how it changes the look of your portrait. To start with, however, I recommend keeping the light source within three feet of your subject as a softer, more diffuse light is more flattering to your subject.

Also, in terms of light direction, you cannot go wrong with a traditional loop lighting pattern (named for the shadow created by the nose on the cheek) where the light is placed at roughly a 45 degree angle to the side and a 45 degree angle above your subject.

Loop Light Shadow

Loop Light Shadow

Here is a basic diagram of a simple set-up I frequently use.

Basic Set-up

Think Before You Shoot

Now before you set the power on your lights, think about what you want the portrait to look like and what sort of depth of field you will need.

If it s a simple head shot and you want a nice shallow depth of field with the eyes in focus and the rest of the photo gently blurring into a beautiful bokeh, then choose a wide open aperture of f/4.0.

If you have props and other elements in the portrait that you need in focus, then choose a smaller aperture and a broader depth of field of f/11. ISO should be set as low as possible to prevent noise. Shutter speed is not much of a factor with studio strobes as the flash is illuminating everything, so I would keep it set just below your sync speed at something like 1/160 sec. Thus, let the aperture you want dictate the shot.

Now, you can either adjust the power of the strobe till it reaches the proper exposure for your shot, or if you want to get even more detailed you can go ahead and use a light meter to set the strobe at the exact aperture you require.

Experiment and Learn

Now go to town! Shoot away! Move the light a little to the left or a little to the right. Bring the light farther form the subject or so close it is almost touching the subject. Experiment and learn. Stop worrying about making mistakes. That is how we learn and get better.

What is the worst that can happen? We get a series of horrible captures?

I do not know about you, but as a photographer I have had plenty of shoots that have been disappointing. Big deal!

Study the bad shots to figure out what went wrong and try again. Learn to embrace your mistakes and I promise you that improvement is not far away.

Katie Make-up-159(sRGB-websize)

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Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at

Some Older Comments

  • Alex Smith March 18, 2013 03:14 pm

    @Kevin-There are many great lights out there and you can spend a lot of money very easily. I think during the learning process it's good to be economical unless money is not an issue. Once you learn to shape and control the light then a higher quality flash setup is well worthwhile. Personally, I like the Paul C. Buff Products ( They are affordable and have good build quality. I would stick to either their Einstein lights or the Alien Bees. In fact the AB800 is a great light to start with that gives you a good range of power. In terms of light modifiers, I really love the Westcott softboxes, however, they require a speed ring that you will have to buy to fit them to the lights. Finally, you will need something to trigger the lights from the camera. I have used PocketWizards products with no problems. Just keep in mind you will need at least two of them (one for camera and one for the flash) to get started. Hope this helps! Just keep in mind this is just my opinion from my own personal experience. There are many great products out there. Just make sure you have enough power and some durability.

  • Kevin March 18, 2013 04:08 am

    Great article Alex, how would I know which light package to purchase for studio lights as a beginner that is learning fast?

  • Tracy Meisch March 18, 2013 01:59 am

    Thank you for the great information. Indoor lighting has caused a fair amount of stress as well, so simplifying the process a bit is less frustrating & allows me to enjoy the actual shoot. Beautiful photos as well!

  • Alex Smith February 11, 2013 06:13 am

    @Brian I am almost always on my own for shoots and rely on light stands to hold things for me. If you can get a hold of a couple of large white or black foam core boards (3 feet wide x 5 feet high) and you tape two pieces together to form a V-shape that you can prop up on its own they work incredible well as reflectors or flags to help you out.

    @Paul No supplemental lighting or reflectors were used in this shot. A 5-foot Octabox is pretty large and the only thing I can think might be giving me a bit of fill could be a wall about 5-6 feet to the side of the model, but I am not sure that it is providing a great deal of reflection at that distance. I will have to check it out during the next shoot.

    @Paul Webb With the Sony 42AM or any sort of speed light you can get brackets that will attach them to a light stand and hold an umbrella. There are also many light modifiers available for them. If you can shoot with it off camera triggering it from the camera with something like a Pocket Wizard, then I would recommend using a shoot through umbrella. The power could be an issue and you will need it very close to the subject and shoot at a wide open aperture and possibly increase the ISO. If you have to shoot with it on camera try angling the flash head back and to the side and bouncing it off a white or silver reflector at the subject. Hope this helps.

    @Keith McMahon This is an excellent point! I have had that problem myself. I have an Alien Bees 1600 unit that even on the lowest setting puts me at about an f/8 aperture in my usual set-up. So one definitely needs to be careful about power of the flash. That being said, you can always by some Neutral Density flash gels that you can place over the flash to cut down the light. This way you can reduce the power and still keep it close to the subject to get a softer shadow.

    @Sarah Thanks for the nice comment. It took me a while to get comfortable with lighting. I think a critical part of photography is learning, and the best way to do that is by making mistakes.

    @Terri Williams My background is about 6 feet from the subject and I like to shoot at close to 200 mm so I am often just far enough from the subject to get a focal point which might be estimated at 6-8 feet.

  • Paul McKillop February 9, 2013 06:33 pm

    This is a well written post. It offers practical advice with the details of the technique required. Very much enjoyed and motivates me to have more of a go. I think it will encourage lots of people who may think that potraiture is extremely complicated and expensive to try it out. Sure it's a difficult art form but you won't get anywhere without lots of practice.Thanks.

  • RUTH Yates February 9, 2013 10:01 am

    great info, very clear and easy to understand.

  • Terri Williams February 8, 2013 01:49 pm

    This is really good information for me, as I'm just starting out with studio work. My question is how far away from the background is the subject, and how much distance is between the subject and the camera. Thanks.

  • jkar February 8, 2013 12:40 pm

    Well, that is a great article. one light source is a good start. you can add more lights later on depending on what you want to achieve.

  • Sarah February 8, 2013 11:59 am

    "I do not know about you, but as a photographer I have had plenty of shoots that have been disappointing. Big deal!"

    Phew! Thank god for that! As an amatuer who gets frustrated and annoyed with herself when it turns to custard, it's SO refreshing to be reminded that even the pros make mistakes!

    You're like a breath of fresh air Alex!

  • Charlie February 8, 2013 11:19 am

    Nice article... Informative!

  • Keith McMahon February 8, 2013 07:40 am

    I think whenever anyone is buying a studio light they need to carefully consider 'how much power do I actually need'. Its all well and good buying the biggest one you can afford, but one the side effects of buying a beast is that it may not go down to the low power you may sometimes need. If the base power is still too strong for what you need this invariably leads to the light being moved further away, which then results in that lovely soft light getting harder as it gets further away.

  • paul webb February 8, 2013 06:49 am

    I have a background screen for home use. What's the best options if you only have a flash gun? The Sony F42AM in my case.

  • Ski February 8, 2013 06:13 am

    Excellent information...

  • jay February 8, 2013 05:49 am

    Good article.
    As a learning exercise, I tried bouncing a flash off a 40-inch reflector (flash head pointed back at the reflector) and got reasonably good results. With the flash mounted on a stand, the reflector seemed to allow "fine-tuning" of the angles and I could experiment.

  • Stacie Jensen February 8, 2013 03:39 am

    Absolutely stunning results with photos!!! Love this!

  • Paul February 8, 2013 03:38 am

    Alex, are you using any supplemental lighting such as a reflector? The last image appears to show light boucing back to illuminate her right arm and shoulder but it looks too far around to be illuminated from the backdrop?

  • Brian February 8, 2013 03:32 am

    That is my biggest nemsis: getting soft shadow transitions in both indoor & outdoor shoots.
    I need to acquire a very large soft box. Also, it's worth noting that there can be a huge advantage in having a helper in both indoor & outdoor shoots - who can hold a reflector in order to highlight areas or to soften shadows transitions. I'm always on my own.


  • yaro February 7, 2013 08:43 pm

    Alex, thanks for the reply. I thought it's worth mentioning a bit about f-stop and focal length corelation since looking at the first photo it's unlikely you would get this shallow depth of field with a 50mm lens at f4 no matter what the backgound unless it came up in postprocessing.

  • Alex Smith February 7, 2013 02:17 pm

    @Jai You are absolutely correct. This expression made this shot the best of the shoot.

    @yaro Good point about focal length, however, with a solid background in studio the focal length would not make a tremendous amount of difference in this case, therefore I chose not to address the additional concept. I shoot most of my portrait work at 100 mm or greater in most cases if that helps. Very perceptive comment.

    @scottc Sadly, it took me a long time pay more attention to those shadows, but in the end it has not only helped me improve my studio work, but also allows me to see natural light in a new way as well.

  • Mei Teng February 7, 2013 11:20 am

    Very well written article. Thanks for sharing the info. Really helpful.

  • Scottc February 7, 2013 10:49 am

    Interesting point about the transition of light to shadow, never thought much about that before.

  • yaro February 7, 2013 08:47 am

    If you say f4 it would be worth mentioning what's the focal length since say 50mm f4 won't give the same efect as 200mm f4

  • Jai Catalano February 7, 2013 08:35 am

    The best part of the above photo is that the young lady is stunning with a subtly inviting look.

  • Barry E. Warren February 7, 2013 02:33 am

    Nice tips. Thanks you and DPS