One-Light Portraits

In portraiture, there’s a temptation for some photographers to use several lights, with the goal of creating a dramatic portrait. That can work, for sure. On the other hand, using only one light also can produce some awesome portraits. What’s more, it’s much easier to work with one light than with two or three lights.

In this article, we’ll explore some one-light techniques. I used a Canon Speedlite 580EX II in a Westcott Apollo softbox for these shots. I shot on E-TTL, the automatic exposure mode on Canon Speedlites, and fine-tuned my exposure using the +/- control on the Speedlite. The Speedlite was triggered by a PocketWizard radio controller, which consists of a shoe-mounted transmitter and a Speedlite-mounted receiver.

You can create similar effects if you shoot using a constant light source in a softbox. I specifically mention and recommend using a softbox for portraits because an umbrella spreads the light, while a softbox, with a recessed diffusion panel, lets you direct the light. Umbrellas are good for group shots and for portraits with less dramatic shadows.

When it comes to shadows: Shadows are the soul of the photograph. Shadows add a sense of depth and dimension to a photograph. Shadows are your friend.

Before we get going, here’s the main thing to remember about using any type of light: The larger the light, the softer the light; the closer the light, the softer the light. In portraiture, you usually want soft and flattering lighting.

1. I used my one-light setup for the opening photograph in this article.

I had a "voice-activated light stand" (my friend Kathy Porupski) hold the softbox directly over the subject. When you use this technique, keep two things in mind: One, make sure the speedlight is securely fastened in the softbox—you don’t want it falling out and hitting the model on the head. Two, as you move the light toward the camera, you’ll light more of the subject’s face, and vice versa.

2. After I took my shot of the model positioned on the floor, I played with my image in Photoshop for a different look.

First, I rotated the image counterclockwise. I used the Paintbrush tool (black selected) on the lenses of the sunglasses to remove the reflection of the softbox. I like the reflection, but here I was going for a different look. And, finally, I used the Dynamic Skin Softener filter in Nik Color Efex Pro to soften the model’s complexion.

3. Here’s an example of what happens when you position the light slightly behind the subject.

As you can see, less of the face is illuminated. Plus, you get a cool rim-light effect.

4. Another cool technique is to create a silhouette.

Simply point the light at the background and make sure no light illuminates the subject. You can do this by shooting at a low ISO, a fast shutter speed (not higher than the max sync speed of your camera, usually around 1?200 sec.) and a small aperture. Use these settings and take a shot without the flash turned on. If your picture is totally black, you have the correct exposure settings—because you don’t want any room light illuminating your subject. Now, turn on the flash and fire away. You’ll get the best silhouette, and you’ll be able to recognize the person if he or she is facing directly to the right or left.

5. Here’s another example of lighting the background.

I used a white background and placed a red Honl gel over the speedlight. For the shot of the man with a hat, I placed a blue Honl gel over the speedlight.

6. Of course, you can take less dramatic, but still attractive portraits with a basic one-light setup, as illustrated by this photograph.

Yes, the background looks as though it’s illuminated. That’s because it’s a brightly painted background, painted to look like a sunset.

For this photo, a reflector is being held opposite the softbox to fill in some of the shadows caused by the one-light setup. So, in reality, there are two light sources—but still only one main light. In this photograph, you can easily see the recessed diffuser panel in the softbox.

7. Here’s another one-light portrait.

It’s soft because the softbox is placed near the subject and because the light is what’s called "feathered." When you "feather" the light, you don’t aim the light directly at the subject. Rather, you aim it slightly in front of the subject.

8. Here’s a cool technique for "lighting up" a black background.

Try using the Lens Flare filter in Photoshop. That’s what I did here to create an image in which the girl looks as though she was photographed on a stage.

9. Here’s yet another shot using my one-light setup.

When shooting with a speedlight outdoors, use the shutter speed to control the brightness of the background: The higher the shutter speed, the darker the background, and vice versa. Adjust the output from your speedlight with the +/- control on your speedlight or in your camera. Using this technique, you can control the subject brightness and background brightness independently. How cool is that?

10. One final thought: Experiment and have fun with the light!

Move the light around and move around to see how changing position by a few feet, and even sometimes a few inches, can change the shadows in your photograph.

Our friend Rick Sammon has been writing for this magazine for more than a decade. Visit with him at

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