Getting the Shot – Simple One Light Portrait

Moving to proper studio style strobe lighting from available or hot lights is one of the first major hurdles a photographer will cross when transitioning to photography as a career or even just taking your hobby to the next level. However lighting setups do not have to be overly complex, and beautiful photographs, if carefully planned, can be taken with just one light source. Here is an example of a stunning portrait style making use of only one light (in this case a Paul C Buff White Lightning X1600 with a 22″ beauty dish) and nothing but a white wall (which to be honest was horribly dirty lol).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II (200mm, f/6.3, 1/160 sec, ISO250)
Shot on the Canon 5D Mark II with the Canon 70-200 2.8L IS II at 1/160th F6.3 ISO 250

To keep this post as simple as possible, I have included a light diagram to explain to you the setup. First, here is a written description. I had Mackenzie stand a couple of inches (at most) off the wall and set the light up directly in front of her just above my head, angled slightly downwards towards her face and upper torso. A white beauty dish was utilized without a grid. The beauty dish is the #1 light modifier in my humble opinion. Get one with a grid, and it becomes incredibly versatile and flexible both in studio and on location. I exposed the image a big brighter than I normally would for two simple reasons. The Canon with its limited dynamic range does not do a particularly great job of pulling details out of the shadows, and I made sure to keep it within correctable range for editing in Camera Raw. Secondly, I wanted to wash out the white wall round her and give myself less editing to do in post. My plan worked as I was able to quickly edit fourteen images for her and her upcoming project this shoot was done for.

Here is a standardized document you can save to recall the lighting setup in the future:

A diagram explaining the light setup for this shoot

Legend: Red is the cameraman, grey is the camera, green is the light source, blue is the subject, the line is the wall behind her.

To be perfectly honest, when I purchased my first set of strobes I barely touched them for almost a year. Controlling light at that level was intimidating to me, and confusing. I did very little research into the matter, and once I set out to learn I began to understand that lights were a tool to help me build a shot from scratch, and that I needed to embrace their incredible power and the incredible control I could have over them. Once I started wrapping my head around that simple concept, photography changed for me, forever. I hope this lesson proves to you that beautiful photography can and should remain simple to understand, and easier to execute!