Home How-To Tip Of The Week Shoot With Only One Light—01/31/11
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Monday, January 31, 2011

Shoot With Only One Light—01/31/11

Up the drama by downing the lights

This Article Features Photo Zoom


I talk to a lot of great pro photographers who tell me about the importance of simple lighting. Peter Yang says his goal is to recreate natural light whenever possible—an aesthetic that leads him toward the look of a one-light portrait on almost every shot. He may use three, four or five lights to create that look, but that’s because Yang is a master of subtle lighting. I find that I can create the look of one light by using, frankly, one light.

It might not be as subtle, nuanced or impressive as working with multiple lights, but a photograph made with a single light source can make for dramatic lighting and an impressive image.

To create a one-light image you’ve got lots of options. First, you can step outside and let the sun be your source. The single light up there in the sky can create drama on a clear day—with strong colors and harsh shadows that are almost impossible to create any other way. On a cloudy day, that one light source becomes the world’s largest softbox in the sky—creating a soft, moody illumination as well as any studio master could.

For those who want to work indoors with hot lights or strobes, one light becomes a great approach for drama. A single light source placed 90 degrees from the lens axis—meaning directly above, below or to the side of a subject—creates a raking light that really makes for a striking image. For subjects with texture (especially if highlighting that texture is important) using a specular light source will amplify it. That could be a bare light bulb, an unmodified flash or a strobe in an open silver dish. Rake that light across texture and the shadows and shape will pop dramatically.

For subjects that don’t have tons of texture, a softer source can still create one-light drama. I recently made a portrait of three hot peppers from my garden. The peppers were surprisingly hot. They scarred me in the metaphysical sense, so I wanted to make an ominous image to reflect my feelings about them. I decided that a single soft source from above would create the ideal mood. It shows texture, it shows color, and it creates drama. And best of all, it’s a lot easier to work with one light than it is to work with ten. So don’t hesitate to try out a single source for drama—whether it’s indoors or out, portraits or peppers.

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