Essential one light portrait guide

Refine with a reflector

Adding a reflector into your one light setup will act like a fill light and will help you to lift areas of your model’s face that are in shadow. Once you understand the extent to which you can manipulate the light you can add in more reflectors, and you’ll quickly discover that you can create more complex looks by bouncing the light at different angles. Experiment with where you position your reflector – having it positioned centrally above or below your model, or at 45 degrees to the left or right, will have completely different effects. 

For a high-end fashion look, the classic butterfly lighting effect is ideal. It involves positioning a large light source directly in front and above the model with a reflector – or a triflector, if you have one – positioned beneath them so that their eyes are not too dark. This is great for female subjects, as it creates soft, delicate shadows and, as with Rembrandt lighting, it will help to enhance the model’s cheekbones, but in a far more subtle way. You can use a studio light with a softbox for this effect, or for an even more luminous glow use a beauty dish.

Create butterfly lighting

Imply another light

Top 5 tips for using one light

1. Underexpose your shots 

It is a good idea to underexpose your shots by around one or two stops, then fix it in post. A slightly underexposed shot can take on a dramatic feel straightaway, so try this before using a reflector or a brighter exposure.

2. Keep an eye on shadows 

Make sure you are always aware of where the shadows fall on your model’s face. A light positioned too high or too low will create very unflattering shadows around the eyes, mouth and nose. 

3. Add life with catchlights 

All successful and engaging portraits will feature catchlights in the subject’s eyes. 

A catchlight is basically a reflection of the light source used that you can see in the subject’s eyes. If the light is positioned too high or too low, then you will lose the catchlight. Without a catchlight the subject’s eyes will look dull and lifeless.

4. Pose the model for the light 

Get into the habit of encouraging your model to pose for the lighting setup and always have the position of the light in mind if you change the model’s pose, making sure to move the light as necessary. 

5. Experiment with the white balance 

You can alter the colour temperature of some studio lights in order to create warmer and cooler images, but you can also alter the white balance in-camera. 

If aiming for a high-key portrait you might want a cooler white balance, but other setups might look better with something a little warmer.

This feature was originally published in Digital Photographer, to subscribe, click here