How to do Great Portraits with One Light

When you first start experimenting with lighting it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Never has the old expression K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) been more appropriate. The most important step is to master what you can achieve with one light source before you start adding others.


Besides, what you CAN achieve with only one light source, used correctly, is quite remarkable.

For this article I have delved into my back catalogue and sourced images that were shot with a single speedlight off-camera. I hate carrying tons of equipment and even now, for 80% of my commercial work, I will try to use one light source only when possible.


Shot with a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite bounced into a 40” white Profoto umbrella

In the below business portrait a diffused umbrella gives us nice catch lights in the subject’s eyes, while allowing for rapid fall away to bring out the shadows. The portrait is shot against a pop-up Westcott black background. A diffused umbrella is a great low-cost investment that massively improves the quality of light from your speedlight, and is easily set up and transported.


Lit with a Canon RT600 Speedlite into a Phottix Para-Pro diffused umbrella

To create the image below I had to expose for the blue sky and then pump as much light into the subject as possible – this is a speedlight at the limit of its capability – the umbrella helps to increase the size and evenness of the light spread. The image was shot at 24mm so the umbrella is as close to the subject as possible without being in the frame.

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