How to Take Beautiful Portraits with a Single Lighting Set Up

In case you’re still wondering: yes, you can take some of your best portraits using only a single light source.

When you’re shooting portraits in a studio, you’d usually pull all the stops and use a lighting set up that requires at least two light sources to properly illuminate your subjects. But when you’re looking for something a bit more dramatic (or if you’re working with limited equipment, really) you might want to try using just one light source.

In this extensive lesson by Daniel Norton for Adorama TV, we are taught how to manipulate light and shadow using a single light source. In this case, Daniel mostly used a soft box.

But before anything else, he had set up his camera so that the image appearing on screen is completely black. To turn the ambient light off, he set his camera to the lowest ISO within its normal range and at the highest shutter speed in which it can synchronize with flash. The aperture, he said, could be anything that would get your photo to look dark.

The trick to successfully shooting with one light source is to play with shadow instead of avoiding it. Unlike multi-lighting set ups, their single counterpart encourages you to be more experimental and move around the light until you get the mood that you are looking for. This way, you also get photos that aren’t flat.

For example, for dramatic portraits with only half of the face illuminated, have your light stand on one side of the model. You can also temper its intensity by moving it back and forth. And for classic-looking, well-lit portraits, move the light source right in front of the subjects and use two reflectors, one of each side of the model.

Reflectors play an important role here too, even if it’s only a small piece of tin foil. Using the gold side of a 5-in-1 reflector, Daniel smartly highlighted the hair of the model as well as the color of her sweater.

We encourage you to watch the video above and hear Daniel talk about his single light portrait techniques himself. It clocks in at one hour and 11 minutes, though, so you might want to get yourself comfortable first.

For more lighting tutorials, check out Daniel’s videos on when to use constant lighting vs. flash, how to get stunning low key portraits with one light source, how to use hard light for beautiful portraits, and how to set up proper lighting for men vs. women in portraiture.

Screenshot image taken from the video by Adorama TV.