Why does it seem like studio lighting setups are always created with more than 3 lights? Lighting your portraits can often feel like something that needs to be perfected right away, but the truth is there is 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.
The good news is, you can work your way into adding lights as you go. Starting with only one light will let you develop your understanding of key lights and fill lights. You’ll learn to add lights once you understand how they work.
After enough practice, you can then invest in proper light sources and start adding more light sources to your portraits.
When you are a beginner, it’s far too easy to get discouraged with those complications when in reality, you could build your entire practice to cover simple lighting setups and still create stunning images.
These five setups give you great idea of what you can achieve using just one light, even if you’re working in a small studio with only basic modifiers.
Many of these setups can also be adapted and similar results achieved using speedlites. Modifiers nowadays are available with speedlite adapters, which gives you a greater degree of creativity and control even if you aren’t using studio lights.
Using one light can be challenging, but as you’ll see from the examples below, it just means you’ll have to get creative in a new way.
Indeed, having a good understanding of light, what the different modifiers do and how you can use accessories such as reflectors and flags will be a huge advantage as it will allow you to really make the most of your equipment.
One Light Studio Lighting Setups For Portraits
1. Large softbox
Soft light placed on the side of the subject directed down
Reading the shadows of the model will reveal you with all the information you need. Here you can see the shadow is soft and falls only on one side of the model – this indicates that the light in only coming from one direction. Also the way the shadow falls further back than just the area of the model and her body, tells you that the light is directed away from the model and is pointed to the back of the model.
2. Speedlight with a snoot
Soft light placed on the side of the subject directed down
Here on the other hand, the light seems to be a lot stronger; this can be seen in the shadows again. The shadows here are sharp, with a distinctive edge and falls right behind the model – being close to her body. This means the light source doesn’t have any diffusers (ie. softbox), but is shot straight from a speedlight (this is an assumption since the light source comes right above where the camera is located).
But what can we notice from the image?
The edges of the light source – the rounded edge – means there is something that narrows the source which the light is being shot from. A snoot is perfect for this kind of portraits, with letting just enough light through, yet still creating the feeling as if photographer is being let into an intimate space.
3. Reflector With A Honeycomb Grid
This image is beautifully created with just one light. There are definitely reflectors at play here, but despite of that, the way this one light source has been placed and pointing the model just the right way is phenomenal.
Looking at the information our shadows are giving; light source is placed way above the models head (the brightest part of the lighted area is her head), this way the light creates a soft circle around the model and a long shadow on the other side. With the warmth the image has, I could argue it being either warm reflector or just post-production editing done to the image.
4. Barndoors Slightly Open
With a narrow light source like this, it’s safe to assume barndoors are being used to only let a fraction of the light through onto the model. This way you can direct the focus straight to the facial features, while everything else is being left in the dark. Creating composition with your lighting can be a strong impact in your portraits.
The rounded light with a snoot head is nicely directed onto the upper part of the models body, leaving the lower part of the image mysterious, all while making it more heavier the the lighted area. This also directs our focus straight to the model herself – narrowing the light source even more, and going in for a close-up would really create a beautiful contrast. This a great one-light setup to try if you’re looking to add a bit more potency in your portraits.
Using Reflectors for Portrait Photography
Technically it’s not another light source so it’s not cheating to use a reflector to help you in your one light photos.
Reflectors can be used in softening any shadows and filling in details in areas that would otherwise be too dark. This is important to add to your studio lighting setup especially when shooting product photography as well as fashion portraits, where you should focus on details.
There are three kinds of reflectors:
- White – this doesn’t reflect colour so keeps the lighting looking neutral
- Silver – better for adding a cooler finish in terms of colour tones
- Gold – ideal for sun-kissed portraits and warming the look of skin
5 Lighting Modifiers for Photographers
You can always modify your light sources, to change how it falls onto your model. This article shows you different ways of bouncing light and combining artificial with the natural light. These modifiers below are the most common ones used with off-camera flash or a studio light for portrait photography.
1. Softbox – A large wrap-around ‘box’ that has a hole on one side for your light to fit through. The opposite side is translucent and the inside is reflective for the light to bounce around and pass through the front panel. It’s a quick and effective way to soften direct light.
2. Umbrella – This will be familiar if you’ve ever walked into a photography studio. Umbrellas can be used to pass the light through or reflect back into the room.
3. Snoot – A snoot is a conical tube that filters light to create a tight spotlight effect. Think about the opening title sequence of a James Bond movie looking through the barrel of a gun – that’s similar to the snoot lighting effect.
4. Grid / Honeycomb Grid – Grids can be placed over a softbox to filter the light slightly (but with minimal effect from our experience. It’s designed to stop the light from spreading as wide after being diffused by the softbox. The smaller the pattern on the grid the stronger the effect will be.
5. Barndoors – Are literally what they are called – metal doors that can either be opened to let more light in, or closed for a more narrow gap and less light.
What is key light?
The key light is your main light source wherever you’re shooting. In these instances, it’s the actual strobe or a speedlight. 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.
Once you start working with multiple lights, you will be introduced to the fill light. Fill lights are used to lighten dark areas and to balance the light in the picture. The key light should always be brighter than the fill light.
How to use fill light
The fill light usually has 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.
Tips To Using One Light Setups
- For portraits, the closer the light the less darker areas there are. The softer the light, the more flattering it is for the subject. Using just one softbox softens skin texture and other details.
- Try out different reflective surfaces. Notice how different colors create different moods into your images. Also playing with the placement of your reflector will create different outcomes.
As you clearly see, though, only using one light studio lighting setup does not mean you cannot create professional-level images, and many pros still work with just a single source in a lot of situations. Once you feel comfortable with it, moving on to multi-light setups will feel intuitive and natural.
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