Portrait photography — Three creative one light portrait lighting setups

Portrait photography lighting ideas

Three creative one light portrait lighting setups

I’ve often heard photographers use the excuse that they don’t have many lights, but when it comes to portrait photography, you can get amazing results using just one studio light.

Looking to create a beautiful soft light portrait image? Or perhaps you want something more dramatic and moody? Even if you’ve only got one light, with a little creativity you can get a variety of different results.

You’ll see more than 40 one, two, three and four light portrait lighting setups in our LightSource course, but to help you get started I’ve put together three easy studio setups that use only one light with basic modifiers.

One light portrait lighting setup
One light portrait lighting setup example.

This setup is perfect if you’re just starting out as it doesn’t get simpler than this. Ideal for those working in small studios, this setup uses just one bare bulb light. The effect of this, with the light reflecting off the white walls of the studio, is similar to what you would expect on a sunny afternoon.

Although a bare bulb might not be the first modifier that comes to mind when you think of portrait photography, used in this way, you can see just how effective it can be and it's a great example of how you can achieve amazing results with minimal equipment.

Watch the full tutorial for this image here.

    Portrait lighting diagram
    Portrait lighting diagram showing how to simulate sunlight using one light.
    One light portrait lighting setup
    One light portrait lighting setup example.

    This lighting setup uses a large octabox — a simple light to use that produces a very flattering light, especially when used from above in a clamshell lighting setup.

    Using the octabox alone in this position wouldn’t generally produce very flattering portrait lighting as the result can be quite hard, with harsh shadows under the jaw and cheekbones so to really bring this image to life and get the most flattering light, it’s necessary to use some sort of reflector from underneath. A triflector is preferable, but it is possible to use a simple piece of white board too (you could even cover this in foil to create a budget DIY silver reflector). This setup shows how you can use affordable accessories to really enhance your images, but if you don’t have a triflector or reflector, you can see how to further simplify this setup and still get great results here.

    Watch the full tutorial for this image here.

      Portrait lighting diagram
      Portrait lighting diagram showing how to create soft beauty lighting using one light.
      One light portrait lighting setup
      One light portrait lighting setup example.

      Softboxes are affordable, versatile and portable modifiers, which makes them a popular choice for portrait lighting. This particular setup makes use of a large softbox close to the model, which creates a lovely soft light with a subtle catchlight in the eye. This simple setup is ideal for those with just one softbox working in a small studio, as you really need minimal space for this setup (in fact, the closer you are to the model the better).

      Although softboxes are known for producing lovely even light, when used incorrectly, they can produce fairly strong shadows, which isn’t ideal for portraiture. So keep this in mind for this shot — the closer you can get, the better.

      Watch the full tutorial for this image here.

        Portrait lighting diagram
        Portrait lighting diagram showing how to create soft light using one softbox.

        These three setups give a great idea of what you can achieve using just one light, even if you’re working in a small studio with only basic modifiers. Many of these setups can also be adapted and similar results achieved using speedlites. Many modifiers nowadays are available with speedlite adapters, which gives you a greater degree of creativity and control even if you aren’t using studio lights.

        Using one light can be challenging, but as you’ll have seen from these examples, it’s by no means impossible. However, having a good understanding of light, what the different modifiers do and how you can use accessories such as reflectors and flags will be a huge advantage as it will allow you to really make the most of your equipment. You’ll find a variety of classes covering aspects such as lighting theory, different modifiers and their effects and how to measure light in the Lighting Theory & Equipment section of the site, which will help you make the most of your equipment.

        For more one light portrait photography ideas, visit our Portrait section, where you’ll find over 40 creative portrait lighting setup ideas.

          One light portrait lighting setup ideas.

          Recommended Content

          For more portrait photography classes, visit our Portrait section, where you'll find a number of creating portrait lighting ideas using one, two, three and four lights. Whether you're working indoors or outdoors, in a small studio or large studio, you'll find our classes cover a wide variety.

          If you’re looking to grow your lighting skills, you will also find the following classes useful. Here I cover some of the fundamental knowledge of studio lighting and show you how you can take complete control. Whether you’re unsure about different modifiers, flash duration or how to measure and correctly expose your shot, you’ll find all you need to know in these informative modules.

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