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10 Ways to Shoot Stunning Portraits With Only One Light

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This post is part of a series called Portraits.
100 Seriously Cool Self-Portraits (And Tips to Shoot Your Own!)
Quick Tip: Simple Portrait Photography Tricks

We're here today to talk about shooting high quality, lit portraits with only one strobe or flash. Maybe your budget doesn't allow you to purchase multiple lights for portraits. Maybe you have to travel light and don't have the space for two flashes. Maybe you just want a challenge. Whatever the case is, you can produce a wide variety of lighting scenarios using a single flash. I've included 10 clearly explained examples in this tutorial that you can apply to your own situations.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in August of 2010.

For portrait inspiration, check out the Being Human category on Unstock.

Unstock portraits
Unstock portraits

Recommended Gear

To complete these tutorials, you'll need a mix of the following equipment:

  • Your camera and lens to start with. All of these portraits were made with a Nikon D700 using a 24mm, 50mm or 85mm lens.
  • A stand-alone flash unit (that means no pop-up flashes) that can be adjusted manually.
  • Something that allows you to fire the flash without it being on the camera. This might be a special cord, or it could be a wireless system. I use a Cactus wireless flash trigger, which will work with almost any shoe-mount flash.
  • A convertible photo umbrella for some of the images. "Convertible" mean that the inside of the umbrella is shiny, but the black cover on the outside can be removed.
  • Though not used in this tutorial, a reflector disc or board could be substituted in many places.
  • A couple of light stands to hold your flash and umbrella or reflector properly

Outside vs. Inside

This tutorial will utilize two broad techniques. We will work outside balancing light from the sun with light from a flash, and we will work inside using just a flash.

While you can balance "ambient" light with light from a flash when working inside, this has not been done in any of these portraits. So let's start outside where the sun will substitute for having a second flash.


Example 1. Simple Fill Light

In this first example, it is evening and the sun is shining toward the subject from her left. As you can see in the example below, half of her face is in shadow and light is very flat. The background is very busy and distracts from the subject. This wide overview shows both the subject in natural light and the light stand holding a flash. The flash has no modifiers and is pointed straight at the subject.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

In order to use the flash correctly, I found the exposure for the ambient (natural) light. I then under exposed it by one stop, and adjusted my flash to match. This sets the subject apart from the background by making it darker. The fence is also illuminated. Because the flash is relatively far away from the subject, it covers a wide area.

Because the light from the sun is still hitting her, and the flash is directed more toward the shadowy side of her face, the light appears very even. This technique is good for obtaining clear, easily identifiable images. Viewers would be able to identify the subject even in a wallet-sized print.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 2. Simple Rim Light

You'll notice in the set-up photo below, that I have repositioned the flash behind the subject. The sun will act as the main illumination for the image, and the flash is going to act as our rim light. Rim lights illuminate the edges of the subject and are usually brighter than the main light (in this case, the sun). Unlike the last portrait, I am not underexposing the ambient light. In fact, I'm over exposing the flash to create highlights.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

Pay special attention to the subject's shirt and hair. The far right edge (from the viewer's point-of-view) of both are almost white. Because the flash is behind the subject, but not directly behind, the light falls just around the edges. You can also see this effect on the fence post in the foreground, and just slightly on the subject's face.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 3. Diffused Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is when the light is 45 degrees to the side of the subject and 45 degrees above the subject. Many of Rembrandt's painted portraits were lit in this manner.

For this image, I have also added the umbrella. The flash is in the umbrella pointing at the middle of it which causes the light to be softer and cover a larger area, but it also causes it to be less powerful, which is why the flash is so much closer to the subject than in the previous photos. You can see that the ambient light is hitting very little of the subject's face.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

As you can see, the right side of the subject's face and body (from our point-of-view) is still illuminated by the sun, but the sun is by no means our primary light source. The flash is filling in all the shadows that were there and also evening out the exposure of the wood around her.

The sun is doing wonders for the subject's hair and creating a warm tone on her leg, but isn't doing much for her face. In terms of exposure for this image, I exposed for the highlights on the subject with the leg and arm being lit by the sun, and allowed the rest to fall into shadow. I then cranked up the flash until I achieved the exposure I wanted.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 4. Hair Light

When using the sun as your main source of light, we already talked about how the flash can be used as a general fill light or a rim light. It can also be used as a hair light. As you can see the in the set-up photo below, the sun is directly facing the subject. It's so bright that she's squinting. Her face is naturally lighter than her hair color, so in order to even out the exposures between her hair and her face, I pointed a flash at it.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

To achieve the type of light I was looking for, I decided to remove the cover from my convertible umbrella. So instead of the flash shooting it's light into the umbrella and the light reflecting off of it and then hitting the subject, the light is coming through the white portion and being diffused in a different way.

You can see how the light from the flash hits her hair and creates a pleasant sheen in the finished portrait below:

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 5. Sunglasses Inside

Now let's move inside. In the rest of the examples, all of the light that makes up the image will be provided by the flash. While I am using ambient window light to create the set-up photos, the windows are in no way affecting the outcome of the image.

The flash is exponentially brighter than the light coming from the windows and overpowers it completely. In the set-up image below, you can see that I've had the subject put on her sunglasses and look directly at the same lighting set-up I used for the hair light above.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

The final product is very similar to a famous portrait of a rock star. I believe it was Slash, but I cannot verify that. If someone knows of the portrait I'm talking about, please post a link in comments!

Anyway, the reflection of the umbrella creates an interesting image in the sunglasses, and the lighting makes the colors of everything really pop.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 6. Flash in the Back, Reflector in the Front

Let me make this clear, the umbrella in this set-up image is empty. I am simply using it as a reflector. In fact, a reflecting disc or even a large white piece of poster board would have worked better in this situation.

The light from the flash is coming over the top of the subject's head and then bouncing off the umbrella and hitting her face. The idea with this arrangement is to create a rim light in the background and use the reflected light as my main source of illumination.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

As you can see in the final image below, her face is softly lit with the reflected light and her hair is picking up the direct flash from behind. The hair is a little too bright for my tastes. If I could do this photo again, I would have the subject tilt her head differently to make the highlight on the top of her head smaller.

Another option would have been to lower the flash further behind her head, so it wasn't hitting so much of the top. Learn from my mistakes and pay close attention to how much rim light your flash is creating.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 7. Dramatic Overhead Lighting

This is a more specialized technique. I wouldn't suggest using it often because it can be a bit cliché. It can lend a certain isolation or religious overtone to your imagery. It can also be used to completely black out a background.

You can see in the set-up that the flash is almost directly above the subject's face, and just slightly in front of it. In almost all cases, the subject needs to look up or else shadows will darken her eyes and her nose would cast an unflattering shadow as well.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

As you can see, the portrait has a very dark background. And it does create a "floating head" effect because the neck is completely in shadow. I chose to keep the neck in the frame so the subject's necklace would be visible. But when using this technique, it's easy to compose the shot so only the face is visible.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 8. The American Apparel Look

If you've seen ads for the clothing store called American Apparel or certain trends in other fashion commercials, then you've seen shots using this technique. In this set up you'll see that the subject is very close to the wall. The flash is in the umbrella and I used a wide angle lens. I stood directly under the umbrella and used a wide angle lens. I set my flash to a low-medium power for this shot because it was so close to the subject.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

The final effect for this image is a little hard to describe. Notice the vignette around the edges of the frame. You can also see that the light source (the big umbrella) being bigger than the subject, and so close, allows there to be virtually no shadows. The overall impression is half police lineup, half point-and-shoot snap shot.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 9. Everything In Close

This technique is similar to the "Flash in the Back, Reflector in the Front" set-up, but the flash is directly behind the subject. Like that technique, the umbrella is empty and could just as easily be substituted with a reflector.

The umbrella is directly in front and above the subject instead of to the side. And this technique utilizes the close proximity of the flash and umbrella like the technique above. I was situated close to the subject as well with a 50mm lens.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

The light in this image is very soft. The high angle and proximity of the umbrella allows it illuminate the face and act as a hair light at the same time. The flash positioned behind the head gives the very edges of the hair a glowing look.

This set up does the opposite of the "Dramatic Overhead Lighting" when done next to a wall. It makes it completely white. You will also notice in the finished image that the light on her hand is a little too bright.

This could be solved in two ways. One, have her tilt her hand in a different way. Two, move her hand further away from the light in some way.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Example 10. Up Against The Wall

Suppose you don't have a reflector or umbrella. A white or light-colored wall can be used to make a dramatic portrait with just one light. You'll notice that the flash is bare again and has been moved farther away. The wall is acting as a reflector, but the versatility and simplicity of this technique is what makes it so valuable.

one light photography lighting tutorial

The Finished Portrait

As you can see, the face is nicely lit and background is very dark. Because almost everywhere you go, you could set up a portrait like this, I want to share some variations with you. You can slow your shutter speed way down to 1 or 2 seconds to allow the background to become visible again. This would create more of an environmental portrait. You can also move the subject into a corner to create a solid white background.

one light photography lighting tutorial

Final Conclusion

Fancy studio strobes with softboxes and umbrellas and seamless backdrops are great. But if you don't have the money, the room, or the strength in your back to carry all the gear, just remember that you can create stunning portraits using a single light and some smart tricks.

Thanks for reading. And go search Google for the that famous rock star portrait!

By the way, if you need help with post-processing for your fabulous portraits, you can find some professional yet affordable photo editing services on Envato Studio.

photo editing services on Envato Studio
Photo editing services on Envato Studio
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