10 minute read

Make Amazing Images With Just One Light

Often, making professional-looking studio photos is more about creative thinking than an abundance of tools. Ab Sesay demonstrates a handful of bold looks using a single source

Creating portraits or fashion photos in the studio, it’s understandable to think of a big setup with lots of lights. But sometimes you can simplify things and use a single light to get the look you want. This allows you to move fast, travel light, and keep gear to a minimum. When used thoughtfully, it can deliver striking, professional images that rival even the most complex lighting setups.

Working with a single light is a lot like using the sun. First, think of its position relative to your subject. Then, decide how you want to shape the beam of light as it makes its way to them. Shaping light is absolutely critical here. In each of the following examples, we start with a hard light source – just like the sun – and shape it to create different looks. Shaping light is what matters most, so take time to imagine what you can do. Pass the light through objects, or have it bounce and reflect off different surfaces, like it would do in nature. This will bring life to the light you’re using.

To see what I mean, work through these five simple and effective ways of using a single light. They’ll open new possibilities for even the most seasoned pros.

1. Use On-camera Flash in Manual Mode for More Creative Control

On-camera flash for portraits is commonly seen as an unprofessional solution for amateurs. People assume it looks horrible. That’s because, if used without skill, it can often appear two-dimensional and unflattering. However, using the right technique, images with on-camera flash can be energetic, vibrant, and look extremely professional.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F8, ISO 200

First, keep in mind that the unmodified light from an on-camera flash will always be crisp, direct, and, at times, harsh. Instead of trying to avoid this fact, use it to your advantage by weaving it into the image’s art direction and incorporating into the subject’s interactions. With the right combination, the light from an on-camera speedlight can add energy, color, and excitement to an image. Use a mix of brightly colored, clean backdrops, and dynamic poses to complement the characteristics of the light you are using.

Remember that when you move closer or further away from your subject, exposure can also change. To solve this, use a zoom lens to alter the framing without changing the distance. You can also put small tape marks on the floor, letting you know what your exposure should be at that mark.

Most on-camera flashes can use TTL metering for flash power, but that potentially leads to problems. Frequently, clients may want the RAW files from their session, or they may want you to process small JPEGs for them to look at. To make that easier, you don’t want some images radically darker or lighter than others, which TTL can produce. It will change your settings based on the overall tone of the scene, but as a professional you want your exposure only to change based on the lighting you’ve applied. Working manually makes applying adjustments to a series of images much more predictable. For these images, the flash was kept at its widest zoom setting to cover the range of the lens without the appearance of vignetting.

Finally, think about gear. On-camera flashes can suffer from slow recycle times – and can be limited by battery life. They’re also usually off-axis, therefore the look of the flash will change when framing vertically. Both things can affect the energy of the session, as well as the quality and consistency of images. As your skills develop, upgrading to flashes that use lithium-ion batteries improves recycle times and battery life, while a flash bracket or wireless trigger can keep the light in the same position when the camera’s orientation changes. These upgrades aren’t vital, but they’ll help you make better images in the long run.

2. Use Off-camera Flash for a Dynamic Sunlit Look

With the flash’s position locked to the camera, you’re limited in the type of looks you can create. But take it off the camera and you can be more creative. Change the angle of the light on the subject, adding dimension to images, making them look less flat than an on-camera flash. In fact, depending on position and modification, you can make it look like any sort of light, natural or artificial.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F8, ISO 400

This time, we’ll go for a simple and effective hard and direct flash style – but has the look of late-afternoon direct sunlight. Because we want hard light, like the sun, an unmodified speedlight is perfect for the job and needs no modifiers attached. To complement this, and make the shadow more intense, use a solid backdrop, such as a wall or background roll.

Put your flash on a stand to the side of you, then manually set its zoom angle to the widest option. This gives you the broadest throw of light. Ensure the flash is far enough back to illuminate the background evenly from side to side, like a full sun would. To judge this light fall-off, use your flash meter if you have one. If your flash is zoomed in, or too close, what you’ll get is less-even lighting, making the photo look artificially lit. But at a sufficient distance, a widely zoomed strobe head should give the coverage required. Now, raising or lowering the strobe controls where the shadows land, allows you to mimic different times of day. That’s the freedom off-camera flash gives you.

When it comes to gear, upgrading to a flash with a built-in radio receiver can really help. Wireless control makes your movement and placement of the flash much freer, as well as letting you control the power and zoom remotely.

3. Cut and Bounce Off-camera Flash for Dramatic Effects

Added to the freedom it provides in positioning the light, off-camera flash can also be shaped more easily. The combination of these two traits is the foundation of building varied and creative looks. In fact, careful shaping can easily make one light look like two, for additional sophistication.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F11, ISO 100

Unlike the previous technique, mimicking the traits of direct sunlight, cutting and bouncing light mirrors the characteristics of sunlight, as though it is glancing into an alleyway or bouncing off a window. To do this, place a bare flash off-camera and shape it to change the look.

Cutting and bouncing light involves subtracting it from some areas, while reflecting it in others. Cutting allows only some light to reach the subject by blocking or obstructing the rest of it, leaving some of the scene in shadow. This technique is normally referred to as ‘flagging’ and ‘gobo-ing’, but they all mean the same thing. The flagging used here sees us set up two large V-flats, so they form the shape of an alleyway. Because of its direction, the edge of the light illuminates the subject through the opening.

Next, use a reflective surface to bounce the light. Remember, make sure the flash’s beam of light strikes the reflective surface, so it reflects back on the subject as an accented lighting effect. Done correctly, the reflected light from the mirror will appear more intense than that coming though the V-flats, making it appear as if a second light is being used.

You can use different surfaces to bounce the light. This will change its quality and make it harder or softer. Read more about this in Part 2 of this series.

4. Use a Reflection as Your Main Light Source

The look of a flash can be altered simply by what it is reflecting from. Different surfaces provide different results, so basically you can use anything that reflects light to change its look. It’s just another way of taking the basic, hard output of your flash and shaping it to make it more interesting. Let’s explore this concept by taking the reflective surface from the last section and making it our main light, instead of using it as an accent light.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F14, ISO 100

Outdoors, the sun is constantly being shaped by nature and man-made objects. Subtle reflections occur because light bounces from these surfaces, creating mottled reflections – like those that are created from water or metal.

To recreate this effect, we need to make the reflected light source stronger than the direct output of the flash. This could be done by cutting and feathering the light, as we previously learned. However, feathering can make it easier to get the result we are looking for.

While it is often a technique used with softboxes, feathering is particularly useful when using a light with a simple hard reflector. Instead of aiming the brightest part of the light at the subject, angle it slightly away, so they are lit by the edge of the beam created. This makes a more even effect than typically seen when using a reflector – and removes any hotspot where the light is brighter at the center, but the shadows are still very hard. Next, with the light feathered, place a mirror, or another reflective surface, in the most intense part of the light to finish the look.

5. Get a Three-light Look from Just One Flash

Now, let’s combine cutting and reflecting light, to create an effect that looks far more striking and complex than you’d expect from a single light.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/160 sec at F13, ISO 100

Apart from using a Profoto TeleZoom Reflector or a Sports Reflector to concentrate the light, no other modifiers are needed. Instead, we will shape the light though what it interacts with. First, position the light high over the subject and angle it down from behind them. This delivers an accent light on the subject’s hair. Thanks to the angle of its position, and the shape of the reflector, the light is also kept off the background, creating a spotlight effect that helps to define the subject’s shape.

Next, take a V-flat, or large panel reflector, and use it to bounce fill light from the strobe onto the subject. Remember, the larger the surface, and the closer to the subject, the softer the effect, so move it as close as you can to your subject to create a soft and broad fill light. Once the V-flat is in place, position the mirror to reflect the light directly onto the subject to complete the lighting setup.

Generally speaking, the hair light and fill effect will be large enough to allow the subject to move around a bit. However, the final element provided by the mirror will need to be placed more precisely, especially if there’s movement required. For example, in the final image where the subject jumps, the mirror was positioned so the light would be at the apex of her movement. Initially, she held her arms up where the light would hit as a guide, and I explained she should feel the flash on her face when she was jumping into the right position. Making a burst of five jumps, we reviewed the images to check it was working, before doing a final set.

In the next chapter, we look at three different multi-light portrait techniques, showing how two, three or more flashes can give you vital options in terms of style and color.

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