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The One-Light Portrait

Over the course of a 40-year career, Annie Leibovitz created some of the most iconic and unique editorial portraiture, recognized all over the world. Being a self-taught photographer, I looked to her work time and time again for inspiration and motivation. I scoured the Internet for information on her lighting setups, equipment and methodology, but the more I dove in, the less concerned I became about equipment and the more I felt the need to simplify my style.

I began to focus more on subject matter itself and what it means to the viewer rather than the technicalities of it all. I began to see "lighting" as simply "light", which meant bringing a natural feel to my lighting and imagery. Around that same time I introduced a set of images called the "Oliphant Portrait Series". The series focused on a group of my colleagues that have been inspirational to my career, many of them being photographers, designers and artists. The images were all captured in front of a custom-painted 9×12-foot canvas from Sarah Oliphant of Oliphant Studios, hence the title of the series. The images were a smash hit and I received a lot of great feedback, but the biggest question of all was, "How did you light that?"


During my research, I learned that when Leibovitz started shooting portrait assignments, she would only bring one light and an umbrella. That is very similar to the setup I use every day: one light and one umbrella. I prefer a solid white umbrella in which the light flashes into the umbrella and then spills out through the diffuser covering the umbrella, such as a 46-inch Photek Softlighter II or a 41-inch Profoto Shallow White Medium Umbrella with Diffusion.

If you are ever assigned a group portrait, try using an even larger diffuser—the larger the group, the larger the light source. Don’t feel the need to add more light or a stronger light, simply add a bigger diffuser.

Here’s an example of the dramatically different looks you can achieve by varying your shutter speed to control ambient light. All three images were shot at an aperture of ƒ/4 and ISO 400. The image at left was taken at a slower shutter speed of 1/10; the middle, at a speed of 1/20; and the left, at 1/60.


The closer the light source is to a subject, the softer the light will fall on the face. The distance from the sun to the earth is about 93 million miles, hence why the sun on a bright day creates such hard shadows. Don’t be afraid to place the light close to your subject’s face. On many occasions, I have had the light less than a foot from my subject’s cheek, and if you were to look at my RAW images, the modifier can be clearly seen in the frame. With a quick cloning session in Photoshop, any and all such distractions can be removed.


The first mistake a photographer can make when staging a natural portrait is pointing the light directly at the subject. It’s important to have the light thrown over the subject and in front of the subject so the light feathers on the face and provides more wrap around the cheekbone. If you’re too far to the side of the subject you’ll end up with a split-light and will create strange shadows. If you’re too far forward, the light will be too flat. Feel it out—good lighting isn’t achieved with technicalities, it’s created with intuition and mood.

This is model Sophia DeSimone, photographed for Heyman Talent Agency. I used one light with a 46-inch Photek Softlighter, feathered to create a moody ambient look on two custom-painted Oliphant canvases.


If you place a subject near a window, the light would look natural and wrap around the subject’s face. Take that same theory and apply it to one strobe. The modification that lies in between the strobe and your subject’s face is up to you, but I recommend the 46-inch Photek Softlighter II. If you want to go even softer to mimic that nice window light, place a 6×6-foot scrim between the Photek Softlighter II and your subject. Leave about two to three feet in between the light and the scrim, and then place the subject about four feet away from the scrim. What you’ll notice is a soft, even light that still retains a hint of drama. I use this method for fill light quite often.


It’s important to get it right in-camera, but there is also a smart way to set your image up for postprocessing. In the digital age, we can easily increase exposure in post, but we can’t take away blown-out highlights. Underexpose your image a stop or two and you’ll not only save yourself some processing headaches, but you may just see a more dramatic image overall. Never be afraid to go to dark with those shadows.

This photo of Steve Wilson, owner of 21C Hotels and Woodland Farm, was taken for The Voice Of Louisville and was an extreme challenge that required a lot of planning and technical execution. Steve is an avid bison lover and we wanted to portray one of his male bison as if it was a pet. Unfortunately, bison can be very dangerous, so the shot had to be composited from two separate images. Using one light and a Photek Softlighter, I created a soft light on Steve’s face, and did the same for the bison.


Using a slow shutter speed in dark situations is an important facet of my work, and I know Leibovitz has always incorporated ambient light for more natural and realistic portraiture. Shutter speed only controls ambient light, while aperture controls artificial light (and ambient, to a degree). Therefore, you have the ability to bring up the exposure of the ambient light using shutter speed without altering the flash effect. "Up" the ambient light, then create drama with the artificial light source. You want the strobe to mimic the look of natural light. In order to keep the image sharp while using a slow shutter speed, use a sturdy tripod and make sure the subject remains somewhat still.


You just never know, everything might be where it should be and the only thing you’re forgetting is a simple chest-level fill from a reflector. It can provide an amazing pop and some beautiful catchlights. By setting a softly modified light source or a piece of white foam core next to those strong shadows, you can reduce the contrast and provide more playing room in postprocessing. Many photographers use fill under the chest for beauty or fill opposite of the keylight for less shadow density. Although this isn’t a pivotal point of light, it can definitely help out when you need it most.

The next time you have an open studio or a bored friend, grab a strobe or a speedlight and a couple of soft modifiers. Using these tips, explore the depth and dimension of your lighting. Simplify things, connect with your subject and you’ll see that less is very much more. That is my one light challenge to you.

Clay Cook began his creative career in the music industry and has built a name as an award-winning, internationally published photographer and filmmaker, specializing in fashion, editorial and advertising photography. See more of his work at

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