How to Shoot Dramatic Portraits With One Light Source

If you’re just getting into portrait photography, you’ll most likely be surprised to see how you can achieve dramatic portraits even with just one light source. 

Whenever studio lighting or lighting for portrait work is mentioned, it tends to be intimidating. However, it’s actually easy to work with just one simple light source to get beautifully dramatic portraits. You don’t even need pro-level studio lights to start experimenting with this, as JT of Run N Gun shows us in one of his latest videos. Whether you’re just getting into portrait photography or want to level up with your practice, this tutorial will be of great use to you.

Making stunning portraits with just one light source is actually one of the tried and tested tricks of portrait photographers in and out of the studio. In his tutorial, JT effectively demonstrates how you can get different dramatic results — you can even try this with your smartphone as a light source to practice!

With his “light on a stick” setup (LED Video Light + Joby Gorillapod), JT shows us how moving the light source around can produce different lighting techniques. Pros use these to achieve different dramatic results even with just one light. These techniques produce shadows that give depth and mood to portrait as compared to shining the light directly in front of the subject, which creates a very flat and boring photo.

Among the lighting techniques you can try with this tip is the Loop Lighting, which produces a loop of shadow under the subject’s nose when the light is placed at a 20 or 30 degree angle to either side. It’s subtle, but it’s enough to give some depth through the shadow. Keep moving it to the side and the result looks even more dramatic. We see it transition into Rembrandt Lighting, which is named after the painter who popularized this technique. An absolute favorite of portrait photographers, it creates a nice triangle under the eye to accentuate the shadows of the face. It also produces nice catchlights in the eyes and makes the subject look more alive.

Keep moving the light source to 90 degrees perpendicular to the camera and you’ll get a perfect Split Lighting. This illuminates only half of the face, creating an even split of light and shadow running down the center of the nose. Move it further still and you’ll get an accent light, and even farther it becomes a rim light. You can even move the light above or below the face to create even more dark and eerie looks.

You’ll most likely have more use for Rembrandt and Loop Lighting techniques for shooting portraits with one light source. So go ahead and practice! Also, try to make variations of your subject’s pose and position in relation to the light source and the camera and see how that works for you.

Meanwhile, if you want more single light portrait tips, you may also want to check out this extensive tutorial from Daniel Norton.

Don’t forget to visit and subscribe to the Run N Gun YouTube channel for more photography tips, tricks, and hacks from JT!