Tutorial: Lighting With One Light, Part 1

Studio lighting can often be intimidating to new photographers, but with a bit of patience and practice, you'll find it's only as complex as you make it.  Working with artificial lights can be a great way to learn about light, how to control it and, ultimately, how to expand your versatility in photography.

When it comes to studio lighting, we generally recommend starting with one light and building from there.  

Why one light?  Well, one important reason is that very often studio photographers are trying in some way to replicate the effects of the sun.   Since our planet has only one sun, we are accustomed to objects casting a single shadow.  

MEREDITH MOORE

MEREDITH MOORE

In the studio, however, we can set up as many lights as we want, so the impulse for studio newcomers is to actually set up as many lights as they have.  This can complicate the process unnecessarily, and result in some very tricky shadows that are often hard to diagnose and correct.

In lighting terminology, we refer to whatever is the primary light source as the KEY light.  This is the brightest and most dominant source of light, and in the natural world the key light is typically the sun.  In the studio, the Key light is the source that provides the modeling of the subject's features in terms of light and shadow.  Below we've lit Chris via a single medium softbox placed slightly above and to the left of the camera at about 60 degrees.

Medium subject slightly above and 60 degrees to the left of camera

With this setup we've created soft shadows on the opposite side of the face, as well as in the folds of Chris' shirt, adding some dimensionality to the image.  By adjusting the placement of the light but keeping all other factors the same, we can change the mood image dramatically.  See what happens when we move the light to directly above the subject:

Medium softbox directly above subject

Medium softbox directly above subject

Medium softbox directly above subject

Medium softbox directly above subject

With this setup we see shadows casting downward, creating a dark shadow area under the eyes and chin when the Emily is facing the camera.  This results in a very moody and mysterious image, useful if you're trying to show your subject as being a bit... villainous.  By having Emily angle her head slightly upward towards the light source, we can change the lighting dynamic and create a soft, "butterly" effect where nose shadow is cast directly beneath the nose, and there's a gentle falloff of light along the cheekbones.  

Beauty Dish on axis, slightly above the camera, about 5 ft from subject

Beauty dish at same distance, off axis 45 degrees and raised 1 ft highter

In the above two shots, we can again see how light positioning changes the feel of studio portrait.  In the left image, a softlight reflector (beauty dish) is introduced, an placed at an angle just above the camera, but on the same axis, resulting in a very frontal light.  You can see how it serves to flatten the Jennifer's face somewhat, reducing dimensionality and even creating a bit of glare.  The angle of the light's positioning causes some light rays to bounce directly back towards the camera, despite the relatively soft light source.  

In the second image (right) the light has been moved about 5 feet to the left (45 degrees), and raise about one foot.  This creates far more 3-dimensional facial modeling, with gentle falloff under the right cheekbone and more highlights in the hair and facial features.  This type of lighting has a slimming effect for faces, and subject's face pops a lot more.  A little bit of fill is noticeable along the right jawline--a result of some light bouncing off the wall to the right of the model.

Simple positioning of light can be the difference between a flattering portrait and an unflattering one, so be sure to experiment with your light placement, particularly in one-light setups.  Once you've nailed this technique, then you can move on to adding bounce cards or additional lights.  But even then, it always makes sense to start with one key light, checking out the shadows and develop your lighting setup from there.

In Part 2, we'll be discussing how to control contrast in the shadows using fill, so stay tuned!