How to shoot stunning portraits with only one light?
People Photography Portrait Photography Mobile Photography
January 4, 2019

Portrait photography is a game of light and poses. We can use this to depict several emotions of the same subject with the help of different types of lighting effects. We have normally come across something called the 3 point lighting setup. The first one is the key light source, the second one is the fill light and the third can be used as a rim light or hair light. Although this may seem complex at first, regular practice can render this quite simple. What if we try to simplify this further by using just a single artificial light source? Is it possible to still shoot great portraits? Well, yes. Let us take a look at how to shoot stunning portraits using just a single source of artificial light.


Image courtesy: Improve Photography


The gear required: A DSLR camera is preferable. Use a lens with the widest open aperture to get that shallow depth of field. A lens with aperture f/1.4 or f/1.8 is advised. If you don’t have such a lens, you may use a telephoto zoom lens too. Telephoto lenses also help in getting a very shallow depth of field. A flash is required as your only source of lighting. A diffuser and a reflector are required to bounce and reflect the flashlight as and when required.

Now we will take a look at the process of shooting outdoor portraits with a single flashlight balancing out the sun and indoor portraits with just a single flashlight.


  1. Flash as your fill light (outdoors): This is the most common way to shoot outdoor portraits. The sun is actually your key light here. If the sun is towards the left or right of your subject (especially during evenings), the other half of the face will be thrown into darkness. This is the portion of the face that you will actually have to illuminate. Decrease the intensity of the sunlight by reducing the exposure by a stop. With a further low intensity, fire the flash from the other side to counter the sunlight. Since the intensities are not the same, the lighting will not be flat.


  1. Flash as your rim light (outdoors): Quite similar to the above process, you need to use the sunlight as your key light. Unlike the previous process, where you need to place the flash behind your subject. The sunlight will expose the subject properly. You don’t have to underexpose the image here. Rather, increase the intensity of your flashlight to highlight the rim of the subject. This is also a very common way of using a single light source in outdoor portraits and it can yield great results.


  1. Hair light: A few may argue that this is not a separate type of lighting setup entirely. But the truth is that this hair lighting setup is quite different from the above-mentioned rim lighting setup. You need to use the sunlight as your key light again. The difference is that the sunlight should illuminate more than half of the face.  Point the flash at the hair of your model and diffuse it with the help of a softbox. The tonality of the hair is normally much darker in comparison to the skin and hence this flashlight balances out the difference in tonalities between the hair and the face.


  1. Rembrandt lighting: This type of lighting is named after the famous painter Rembrandt. Normally this kind of lighting requires a 3 point lighting setup. However, we are going to explore ways to execute this kind of lighting with just a single light. Use the sunlight to illuminate your model. Place the flash at 45 degrees above and to the side of your model. The result is an example of Rembrandt lighting.

  1. Key light and rim light (Indoors): This is an example of an indoor lighting setup. From here on, we are going to show you how to shoot the indoor portraits with just a single source of light. All this while, you had sunlight as your key light source. The best way to have rim light and key light both with just a single flash is by placing the flash behind your model with a reflector in front. When you fire the flash, it lights up the hair of the model thus producing the rim light effect. The reflector in front of the model actually reflects back the light on to the face thereby becoming the key light as well. The rim light here will obviously be much brighter than the key light. With the help of the brush tool, this can be easily adjusted in post-processing.


  1. The dramatic lighting setups: These are quite clichéd lighting setups that most of us have tried quite often. Movie posters are generally the source of inspiration for this kind of lighting. Here you will have to use the single flashlight to illuminate the model either from the side or from the top. If you fire the flash from the top, it will produce the dramatic overhead lighting with the entire neck portion in shadow. This is hence also referred to as the floating head effect. In case you are firing the flash from the side, half of the face will be properly illuminated while the other half will be completely thrown into darkness. This can be used to depict a sort of mysterious feeling.



Now that you have gone through the entire blog, you have come to an understanding that the angle of the flashlight is being changed continuously to create several types of lighting effects. Although most of the lighting setups have a name assigned to them, you can always try out your own as per your requirement. At the end of the day, your portrait must be able to express the feelings you want them to. Portrait photography is basically playing around with the angle of your lights. While a 3 point lighting setup is always recommended, even a single source of light can suffice!


People Photography Portrait Photography Mobile Photography
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