The One Light Speed Portrait

The One Light Speed Portrait

Creating a dynamic, well lit portrait does not have to be overcomplicated. In fact, I just may shock you with how simple it actually may be. To illustrate my point, I will walk you through one of my favorite shots – one that took very little technique to create.

OneLightPortrait (1 of 1).JPG

1. Place your subject against a dynamic background

In this shot, the city skyline of Portland, Oregon at sunset made for a gorgeous backdrop.

2. Expose for the Background

I wanted to capture the light sparkling through the buildings, which meant that my exposure would be set for my background and not my subject. Without another light source, this typically wouldn’t work – you would have to expose for your subject and this would leave your background overexposed. With another light, it suddenly becomes very accomplishable.

3. Light your subject

Using your secondary light source, be it on camera flash or off camera flash, strobe or even flashlight, light your subject. You will need the light to be fairly strong to balance the exposure of the background.

4. Set your camera

To accomplish this shot, I made my aperture small – F13. This enabled the sun to appear like a starburst as it set amidst the city. My shutter speed was at 1/100, primarily so I could use my external flash. And of course, there was enough light all around to use the ISO at 100.

5. Position yourself

To be completely honest, the most difficult part about this shot was positioning myself to get the sun bursting through the buildings, and over my subjects shoulder. The angles had to be “just so” in order to achieve this look.

All in all, this shot took maybe 2 minutes to set up and capture. With practice, your dynamic portraits can also be attained just as simply!

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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

  • Dailydose10 June 17, 2012 06:50 pm

    Good practical advice.
    I have found that the sun moves surprisingly fast, so you can't take your own time.

  • gipukan (Rob Gipman) June 16, 2012 06:00 am

    I used a similar technique to get my shot working while the sun was going down in africa. I lighted us with my flash against the strong sun-rays that were still coming.[eimg link='' title='Our Safari group 6 adultts and 6 kids' url='']

  • Marcus Davis June 16, 2012 02:35 am

    Great shot, Christina. Thank you for the tip on counteracting the backlighting from the sun.

  • Alexx June 16, 2012 02:02 am

    I like this post. It gave me some great pointers and tips. Thank you!

  • Bruce Stevens June 16, 2012 01:47 am

    I appreciate great practical, easy to implement approaches like this. Thanks.

  • Rick June 16, 2012 01:42 am

    Oregon is always a great place for environmental portraits. :-) Nice simple advice here, and thanks for posting.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 16, 2012 01:34 am


    Great article and lots of useful things I will certainly study and put into practice. Using a single speedlight for sunset pictures, like this Father and Son on the beach is really useful. The trick is to expose the background to capture the colors and then use the flash to fill the subjects!

  • Steve June 16, 2012 01:24 am

    I think this could be categorized as a speed portrait. During a photo shoot i shot it quickly with little regard to settings or anything else but it has proved very popular.
    I think it just captures 'something'