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One Light Studio Portraits

Whether you are new to photography or you're a natural light photographer who wants to get more comfortable with flash photography, you probably already know that a key element in making a good photograph is being able to manipulate your light source. Maybe a studio just isn't in the budget right now, and believe me I get that! The good news is, you don't need a whole studio lighting kit to create a good portrait. The most important thing you need to know how to do is to light your subject properly and that can be done with just one light source. So, today I'm going to talk about some lighting setups you can practice in your studio space no matter how big nor small your space is.

First, let's talk lighting options. I was fortunate enough to meet a photographer who was selling all of her studio equipment and I made out with two Elinchrom studio lights with the trigger, and a soft box. Let me tell you, it's been a game changer from having to use nothing but a speed light, but my speed light still comes in handy for certain situations. If that's where you are right now, I highly recommend the Yongnuo Speedlite YN685. It is compatible with both Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras. I use this speed light with my Nikon D700 and it's powerful enough to bounce off of a light colored surface (like a white wall or low ceiling) and provide more than enough power to light your subject and possibly an entire room Click on the image below to shop now and save 10% on your purchase!

Disclaimer: I may be compensated for certain products endorsed in this blog, but I speak only from my own experience and my honest opinion on the products themselves.

In an outdoor situation, you could also use the built-in white flash card and point your flash upward. Not to discredit the effectiveness of Nikon's SB700 speed light, of which I've had two, but I've had to have both repaired for the same problem, so I did some research and found the YongNuo to work best for me and what I photograph. It's a work horse and cheaper than Nikon's SB700. Keep in mind that without a soft box or diffuser of some sort, any artificial light source will be harder (meaning more contrast on your subject as opposed to a nice soft, more even light). I use this Rotalux octabox by Elinchrom with the BRX 500 studio light. Click on the image to shop this item and get 10% off on your purchase!

That being said, if you have the budget for studio lighting, below are a couple of samples of the kind of light you can achieve with just one studio light and the softbox shown above. While I do have a second light, I don't yet have a soft box for it, so I use it as a hair light for some of my portrait work, like the Halloween portrait shown below. I just set it on prop light and set my trigger to only fire my key light (main light source). Below is a sample of a one light headshot and a character portrait lit with a second light as a hair light. I used the same model, my talented friend, Melody, who did her own makeup in both of these samples.

One light headshot photography

Headshot photographed with just one Elinchrom BX500 light and Rotalux octabox.

Character portrait of lady Beetlejuice

In this image, the key light has the softbox on it for diffusion while the light behind the model is just the bare bulb. There are different things you can use with your light to change how it looks on your subject, but for now I'm just going to talk about a few basic lighting techniques for the face.

1. The Beauty Headshot

In the image below, I photographed my lovely stepdaughter, Faith, using one studio light with the softbox I mentioned earlier. For beauty headshots and most talent headshots, I try to position the light as high and as frontal as possible without the softbox being in my way or in the frame, as I have a low ceiling in my studio space. This creates a nice soft, flattering light on your subject. Notice here how the eyes and facial features are evenly lit with most of the shadows falling slightly on the right side and below her chin.

2. The Rembrandt

If you've had any technical training or art classes, then you probably are familiar with the term Rembrandt lighting. It's name of course originates from the famous painter who used this same lighting technique when painting his portraits. In my sample below, it's quite a softer, less dramatic version of Rembrandt lighting, but you can see the difference between this one and the headshot image in the first lighting sample above. Notice the shadow is more prominent on one side and forms almost a triangle of light under that eye. Also notice each model's head is positioned straight at the camera so that you could more easily see the difference in the light positioning.

3. Theatrical

I call this one theatrical because it is more about the light creating drama than making your subject look flawless and beautiful. You can have more fun with this sort of lighting and create the mood that you want. It's great for a cinematic effect or cosplay portraits. For the image below, I moved my light with softbox almost completely to his left side to create more shadowing and drama.

Tip: You can always fill in your shadows with a reflector or white board. I use an Interfit 5 in 1 reflector. Click on the image and save 10% on your order.

It's up to you as the photographer to make the lighting decisions, but remember to practice, practice, practice and have fun in the process!

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