11.28.14 Rick's Quick Fix Friday: Try One-Light Lighting

"When you think you need two lights, use one light. When you think you need three lights, use one light." – Frank Doorhof

Today's Rick's Quick Fix is about fixing flat portrait lighting.

In portraiture, there is 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 can also produce some awesome portraits, for a heck of a lot less money. What’s more, it’s much easier to work with one light than with two or three lights.

In this post we’ll explore some one-light techniques.

I used a Canon 580EX II in a Westcott Apollo Softbox Kit for all 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 PockeWizard radio controller, which consists of a shoe-mounted transmitter and a speedlite-mounted receiver.

Today, I exclusively use a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and a Canon ST-E3 transmitter for my speedlite photography.

By the way, as you can see, I don't have a fancy studio. I shot my "Girl with the Pearl Earring"photograph in my office.

You can create similar effects if you use a constant light source in a softbox. I specifically mention, and recommend, 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.

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.

I used my one-light setup for the portrait of the girl in black on the black background. I had a voice-activated light stand (my friend Kathy Porupski) hold the softbox directly over the subject.

When you us this technique, keep two things in mind: One, make sure the speedlite is securely fastened in the softbox; you don’t want it falling out and hitting the model in the head. Two, as you move the light toward the camera, you’ll light more of the subject’s face, and vice versa.


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

First, I rotated the image counterclockwise. Second, 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. Third, I used the Dynamic Skin Softener filter in Nik Color Efex Pro to soften the model’s complexion. All the plug-ins I use are listed here.

Above on the left example of what happens when you have the subject face the softbox and 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.

This portrait was also taken using the above-the-subject lighting technique. The main difference is the color of the woman’s blouse. Having the subject wear white changes the mood of the photograph. This is a photograph of my photographer friend and awesome photographer Catherine Hall.

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 synch speed of your camera, usually around 1/200th of a second) and a small aperture.  Use these setting and take a shot without the flash turned on. If your picture is totally back, 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 is or she is facing directly to the right or left.

I created the blue-tone background by placing a blue Honl Gel over my speedlite.

Here is another one-light, blue-gel shot.

Here’s a shot of me teaching speedlite photography at one of my workshop. If come on a workshop - any workshop - I make this promise: You will master daylight fill-in flash in less than 12 minutes.

Can't make a workshop, lean about light on line in my KelbyOne class: Light - the main element in every photograph.

Have an iPhone or iPad and want to learn the basics of lighting?  Check out my app, Light It!

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.

Explore the light,