10 Ways to Shoot Stunning Portraits With Only One Light

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Recommended Gear

To complete these tutorials, you’ll need a mix of the following equipment:

  • Your camera and lens to start with. All of these portraits were made with a Nikon D700 using a 24mm, 50mm or 85mm lens.
  • A stand-alone flash unit (that means no pop-up flashes) that can be adjusted manually.
  • Something that allows you to fire the flash without it being on the camera. This might be a special cord, or it could be a wireless system. I use a Cactus wireless flash trigger, which will work with almost any shoe-mount flash.
  • A convertible photo umbrella for some of the images. “Convertible” mean that the inside of the umbrella is shiny, but the black cover on the outside can be removed.
  • Though not used in this tutorial, a reflector disc or board could be substituted in many places.
  • A couple of light stands to hold your flash and umbrella or reflector properly

Outside vs. Inside

This tutorial will utilize two broad techniques. We will work outside balancing light from the sun with light from a flash, and we will work inside using just a flash.

While you can balance “ambient” light with light from a flash when working inside, this has not been done in any of these portraits. So let’s start outside where the sun will substitute for having a second flash.

Example 1. Simple Fill Light

In this first example, it is evening and the sun is shining toward the subject from her left. As you can see in the example below, half of her face is in shadow and light is very flat. The background is very busy and distracts from the subject. This wide overview shows both the subject in natural light and the light stand holding a flash. The flash has no modifiers and is pointed straight at the subject.

The Finished Portrait

In order to use the flash correctly, I found the exposure for the ambient (natural) light. I then under exposed it by one stop, and adjusted my flash to match. This sets the subject apart from the background by making it darker. The fence is also illuminated. Because the flash is relatively far away from the subject, it covers a wide area.

Because the light from the sun is still hitting her, and the flash is directed more toward the shadowy side of her face, the light appears very even. This technique is good for obtaining clear, easily identifiable images. Viewers would be able to identify the subject even in a wallet-sized print.

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