A Quick Start Guide to the One Light Setup

The Prince of Cheap is here again!

In my pursuit of (cheapness) one light perfection, I am about to give you a gem or two that will keep you from complaining about having only one light. In fact, if you fully understand this… you may even come to prefer one light images! Why on earth one light you ask? Well, one light means one source to control and keep track of. The real reason is that my back hurts from carrying around a ton of equipment and my wallet is low! Read on to see how you can do great things like me, a self proclaimed “Minimalist”! You can tell your clients that you’re a master expert and lighting specialist and that you don’t need ten lights to get great images.

The quick start guide to the one light setup:

  1. Setup your single light source (It can be a continuous source, a low power strobe or a 100 watt flash).
  2. Make sure you use a very large light modifier for your source, such as this homemade light panel, a very large shoot through umbrella, or a large softbox (I like the 60 inch convertible white satin umbrella – about $38.00). But remember, any translucent white shoot through umbrella should work just fine as long as its big (at least 40 inches). My examples below will show both my 31 x 47 inch ebay softbox as well as my 60 inch shoot through umbrella as the main light source.
  3. Set your light source with large modifier about 3-4 feet from your subject (if your source size is at least 40 inches).
  4. Set your strobe to low power – 50 to 60 watt seconds is all you need.
  5. Set your camera to Manual Mode: f4.0 – f5.6, 1/125th, 100 ISO should give you a very good starting point for exposure. Check your histogram or light meter to be sure.
  6. Optional Ingredient: A large reflector (Gold, Silver or White) works very well in this situation to add some sparkle to the portrait, but is not necessary. If you don’t plan to use a reflector, you can compensate moving the light source a tad bit closer to the camera axis so the light will flood a bit more into the eye furthest from the camera. Just don’t move it over too much or the light will become flat and lifelessly dull!

    Check out this triangular pop up reflector I won from eBay seller 2DreamMaker for $1 plus S&H. (This tool is awesome and the build quality is pretty good. I just wish the handle was flat to stop the grip from rotating as much. The best part about it is that its double sided with gold on one side and silver on the other. The regular price is about $19.99 + S&H.

  7. Fire!!!

Here are a few samples of what you should be able to get with this single light setup. Yes YOU can do this!

As you can tell I didn’t empty out the studio before I took these quick example pics! :)

For the bottom 3 portraits, I was using a 440 watt-second Britek strobe that would only power down to 110 watts total output (a little too much light for my purpose). I had to cut some light down. To do that, I cut some black tulle fabric (black wedding dress sheer material) and layered it over the softbox I used. Four layers of material reduced the light output about one f-stop. See the image below for tulle fabric diffuser.

Here’s the main point: The light is so soft is because it is close (about 3 to 3.5 feet!) and it’s large. Examine the portraits above. Notice the softness of the shadow and highlight transitions. This is the benefit to a large directional source of light. By directional I mean – not directly in front of the subject – that would be non directional because the shadows would be filled with light because of the directness of the source light hitting it flat on (a.k.a. flat light)!

Now take the principle and run with it. Would this work with the “Strobist” approach of using small portable flashes to replace large studio flashes? You Bet! Would this work with hot lights? You Bet!

You could also place the subject near a wall and fire a flash into the wall. The reflected light from the wall can be your large source of light if your subject is close enough.

One Light Example 6

The above image was an outdoor model session I had with the lovely and talented Mrs. Cordera. The flash was a simple “El Cheapo” Britek 200 watt second BB-200 (200 watt studio flash) I brought along with my portable flash power pack. (See the Innovatronix Explorer product review).

Single Light DiagramI hope this diagram says enough. Remember, if you decide to use a reflector, start it out on the shadow side of your subject about the same distance from the subject as the main light.

Now, you have NO EXCUSES to discredit that small power flash you’ve been looking at but didn’t think it had enough “POWER” for you. GET SHOOTIN!

Published by David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!