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!

David Griffin

About 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!

28 thoughts on “A Quick Start Guide to the One Light Setup

  1. Scott Hampton

    Hi David.
    Nice article that you’ve got there. I’m a one-light proponent as well, although I do see the merit in multi-light setups, too. The one-lighter is a wonderful tool to accomplish a lot with minimal fuss.

    Great shots, too!

  2. jacob

    The other thing I wanted to add was, this statement was confusing…
    “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)!”

    You’re saying that if the light was directly in front of the subject it would be considered “non directional”, yet “the shadows would be filled with light because of the DIRECTNESS of the source light”…
    So is a light source in front of the subject, directional or non-directional? :)

  3. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Its said that when you use say an umbrella directly behind the camera the light from it is non directional. when used as the fill its considered non-directional fill. its a matter of old school lingo. truth is… any lightsource from any angle is directional. :) whether we consider it directional or not is how much stronger than the mainlight it is. If it is the mainlight then because of the dominating shadows it creates.

  4. Ursala

    David, I find your techniques very fascinating. Do you have any books that you have written, so I can thumb through them? If not do you hold classes in California ever? If so can you let me know when your next one is. Thanks.

  5. William Walicki

    Hello. I just found this on accident throug alienbees. I justed wanted this was very informative , and I hope to get some lights and contribute , you can see my stream of photos at flickr.com bluepix52and thanks

  6. Shannon

    Do you have a simple suggestion for full length shots on a white background? I am having trouble getting the floor to be a white as the wall background when using one studio light. My studio is small, so should I be trying to bounce light off the ceiling with my on camera flash to get another half stop onto the floor so it doesn’t look grey?

  7. David Griffin a.k.a. Prince CheapDavid Griffin a.k.a. Prince Cheap

    Wow! Your in a really tough position!!! With one light… hi-key! Thats rough. Try this… set your light on full power in a very large white translucent umbrella (try 40-60 inches). Then set your flash slightly behind your subject. Then setup a white or silver reflector in front of your subject. Meter for your subject and you should get white all around. WOW! I’m inspired! Watch for a post on this technique I sometimes use! Basically its backlight with a translucent umbrella. I’m using the reflectors to fill my subject and over exposure to go “hi-key”. The trick is careful metering of your subject so that you will get enough light on your sub. You know what… what a great challenge… I’ll work on that one soon!

  8. Ken Kisty

    I found this information to be very useful. When starting out at the brides parents house, I like to get professional results without too much lighting equipment. I like the softbox diagram, I’m going to practice it with my Micro Apollo over a Vivitar 285 flash on a lightstand with a long pc cord.

    I also would like to add that most of my other flash technique is based on the hand held flash with a white bounce card. Thanks for the information, I would always welcome more.

  9. kim

    David, I have taken pictures for years but have mostly relied on natural light. I am now trying to do more portrait work in my home and need to get a basic studio set up on a budget. I have learned a lot from your articles but I still have a question. I was on the verge of buying a speedlight (either the sigma EF 500 super DG or the Nikon 600), but now I am thinking maybe I would do better with a monolight like an alien bee. I dont mind investing in 1 or 2 good pieces of eqipment, I just can’t afford to buy things I don’t really need. I am making my own diffusion panel, should I have an umbrella or brolly box too, or is the panel enough? I also do animal and other outdoor work. Might I have use for a monolight AND a speedlight?
    All advice would be greatly appreciated. Kim

  10. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    TO KIM:
    My suggestion. Get 2 alienbee flashes if you can. I’d go with 2 AB800’s. Otherwise my el-cheapo britek hs-2000’ll work fine. In your case… try this. 1 AB800kit with the umbrella. Build 2 lightpanels (one for a reflector fill and one for use as a makeshift softbox. Then get yourself a vivitar 285HV ($100) with a optical slave or wireless slave from ebay seller gadget infinity. That should be enough to be your main, fill and backgound lighting setup.

  11. kim

    Thank you for your fast reply! Sorry if this posts twice, I sent it once, but did not see my question when I checked back later, so here it is again…
    I have a pretty small “studio”, 12′ x 12′ or so. Under what circumstances would I use the umbrella versus the makeshift softbox? Do I need both the umbrella and the softbox?

  12. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    TO KIM:
    Use the makeshift soft when 1.) you want square catchlihts or 2.) your photographing shiny reflective objects where a square catchlight is more desireable.

    I’d use the umbrella anytime I’m photographing a person.

  13. Paul Ely

    You mentioned an ebay store named Mr Studio One for purchasing lighting equiptment at good deals. I am interested in making a purchase with this store ut wanted to make sure that they are selling quality items. What has your experience been wiht them?

  14. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    TO PAUL:
    After 12 purchases with them and no reason to return any Item I’ve bought… I’d say that they’re all I’d expect from an Good ebay dealer. However as with any company overseas except Innovatronix, I wouldnt make any large money purchases that I though I may have the slightest bit of trouble returning if it didnt work. For example, if I bought a 5n1 reflector – at $42 I’d just bite the bullet if it were bad and would not purchase from them again. However for a $400 flash, octabox combo like the one they offer…. I’d hesitate. Cheapness does come with a price. So in a nutshell, I’d keep my purchases from any overseas ebay seller very small.

  15. Tina Klinedinst

    David, I love your pictures. I am pretty much a hobbiest in portrait and family photography. I have relied only on natural light so I have no idea about studio lighting. I have been asked to do an indoor wedding in March and indoor soccer team pictures in April. All I have is a camera and an electronic flash for my sony A100 digital SLR. What are the basics I absolutely need for a portable studio. I do not like my flash it just seems to bleach everyone out. Also, I plan on a new camera. What is your suggestion? I was looking at a Cannon Digital SLR or the Nikon D80? I have had too many problems with the sony. Sorry I was so long winded

  16. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Sorry to hear your issues with the Alpha. I’ve had only 1 problem with it… its lack of a dedicated PC sync port on the body. You need to diffuse your flash. Check out ebay and lookup the lambency diffuser. Its a gary fong knock off. But its cheap and I’ve heard good things about it.

  17. priteesh

    hi david.

    to day is my first day here at your website and i must thank its host for such article. your concept is just mind blowing.its nt in pursuit of cheapness (as u started this article) but rather i will say its this limitness that have made u more creative. seems everything is tried before. its nt like the other site who are just writing to sell. its a great service not only to the photographer but ppl like us who loves imaging.

    you are keeping it as simple as possible and that is good for a ppl who are limited to resources and time. you really doing great job. Do you have a book that is written, in the same persuit ? pls consider you must write it for the 1:6 crop factor photographer in mind. because they are the ppl who are looking for this kind tips. after spending on body and lens they have hardly left anything to invest on great lighting.

    thanks great article and great site.

  18. Larry


    Great information. Thanks for sharing. I, too, am an amateur . I’ve been shooting primarily sports/action shots for family and friends. Another photographer/friend let me borrow his portable 3 light system to experiment with. The lights were JTL?(160’s). I setup a couple and took some pictures of my children. I really liked the overall result. Now, I’m interested in getting some lights of my own. I’m on a tight budget and have just about decided on a single AlienBee 800. I’m working toward a setup that will allow me to get full length shots, but have a pretty tight budget. A couple of questions. I was looking to get the largest softbox that AB had to offer with the 800, but I’ve read a lot of references to catchlights. Should I get a large shoot thru umbrella instead? Can you post a couple of images contrasting the difference between the round the catchlights and the square catchlights?

  19. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Thank you very much for the kind words! I need the encouragement and the love. Thank you. I do have a book on lighting in the works. If my workshop next Sunday works out well then I will be finished with it by the end of this May!

  20. David GriffinDavid Griffin


    2) Catchlights? Come on man!!! :) Dont get hung up over catchlight shape… just make sure you HAVE a catchlight in the eye! :) The shape of the modifiyer dont make it any better light. 99% of all light mods have the same thing in common… white ripstop nylon fabric! The fabric is the secret! Not the shape. The size of the tool is the key to softbness!!!!! A 32 umbrella is not nearly as soft as a 60 inch one at any distance from your subject John. Start with a $60inch umbrella and a 43inch umbrella.

    3) Clients for the MOST part dont care about the shape of a catchlight John. Real clients just care that the light in the eye is beautiful. Remember that! Umbrellas are way cheaper and quicker to setup breakdown and maintain.

  21. Paula

    Hiya David, i am having a problem lighting the white background, i have position two spotlight either side and i have turned the power up, the model is i should say 8 feet away and the softbox is in front of the model, the image is showing it as bleeding meaning the light is too much,so i have lower the output and instead the model is dark and the background is very bright, were am i going wrong. I have a problem getting a very white background in the studio.

  22. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    You need to meter the background lights to be no more than about 2 fstops brighter than your subject. Then move the subject far enough away so that the reflecting light wont “bleed” (reflect) back onto your subject. As for your subject being too dark you’ll need to A increase the output of the flash or B decrease the distance of the flash from the subject (which would effectively increase the output striking the subject).

    – The Prince of Cheap

  23. Mr. Tracey

    IT”S ME Again Dave,

    Yo! I just saw the post about your book. Let me be the first to say I’m gonna buy 2, one at home for “Archive and Reference” and one for long trips away from the house or out and about shooting. The tips and advice you given me are worth way more but unfortunately that’s all I can afford to give at this moment. I’ve set my ambitions and focus to getting to the “BIGS.” If I do always remember it started with “You.” The ideas are coming so fast I can’t write them down fast enough. I have a nephew, two cousins, and a good friend into photography, if all goes as you plan (May GOD please see fit) I know what they are getting for xmas. So please give the first shot at your book by posting availability dates and where to buy here first.

    Thanks and Happy Shootin

    Mr. Tracey

  24. Dustin

    Hello David,
    i am seriously looking into getting into studio photography, but i have little cash flow. :( from what i have read here you have great insight to cheap photo equipment. I have been looking at a light setup on ebay by discount tommy. Sp 3500 portriat setup. is this any good, because if it is, then it is a great deal!

    thanks for all the previous information

  25. Michael

    I am finding your information very useful David and I also would purchase a book if it was offered. I do have one question: In the diagram above could you please label what it is we’re looking at. I understand the umbrella on the left, and I’m pretty sure the top is the subject or person, but what is the drawing on the bottom? Forgive me, I am completely new to studio setup but eager to learn…

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