Single Light Setups

This page will go through some basic lighting setup ideas using a single light. The studio is modelled on my own studio very roughly. The main area of the studio is approximately 5m by 5.5m, half of which is taken up by a white infinity cove. The remainder has black laminate flooring and black walls.

Let's start with a classic single light setup

This is a classic single light setup. The light is placed off to one side and slightly raised from our lovely model for this guide, Pixie Elle.

Classic Rembrandt Lighting

Layout and final image

For this setup I am using a simple octagonal soft box and a relatively low powered 200w strobe head. The light is called the key light as it is providing the main source of light for our image. Obviously in this case it is also the only source of light.

Notice how the shadow forms on the right hand side of Pixie Elle's face as we look at her. We can control the softness of that shadow by either moving the light closer (to soften it) or further away (to harden it). Alternatively we could use a larger light source as our key light. The larger the key light, the softer the shadow.

Adding a reflector

There can be a few reasons you only have one light, maybe budget or maybe you just cannot be bothered to set up another light! A simple method of simulating a second light source is simply to add a reflector on the opposite side of the key light. You could even move your model closer to a white wall and use the wall as a reflector. The reflector will fill in some of the shadow.

Adding a reflector

Layout and final image

Let's compare the two images. Notice how there is much less shadow in the second image. We could increase the amount of shadow by replacing the reflector with a black one which will absorb light and prevent even more light reflecting back into the unlit side of the face.

No reflector

Reflector to lift shadows

Feathering the light

Another thing we can do to change the shadow detail is to feather the light across the model.

Feathering the light

Layout and final image

If we compare the original single light setup on the left with the feathered light setup on the right you can see how we have reduced the direct light falling on Pixie and slightly increased the shadow depth. Even more striking though is how we have darkened the background now the key light is angled away from it.

Classic lighting

Feathering the light

Move you!

It goes without saying, despite Pixie Elle's incredible ability to hold the same pose so far, that we expect our model to move but do not forget that you can move as well! I know as we get older we are less enamoured with the idea of getting down low or crawling over the floor if necessary but changing your position can dramatically change the shot.

Don't forget to move yourself

Layout and final image

Move the light

OK so we have been lazy so far and not move the lighting too much other than to feather it but we can move the light from side to side and forwards and backwards to change the look. You will hear the terms short lighting, where the darker side of the face is towards the camera, and broad lighting, where the brighter side of the face is towards the camera.

Move the light source

Layout and final image

In this setup we have 'short lit' Pixie. The darker side of her face is pointing towards the camera. Short lighting can be used to thin a face. Conversely broad lighting can be used to give a fuller face. We can also create styles like Rembrandt, loop and butterfly lighting by carefully positioning the light to create shadows so that they reach from the nose across to the cheek bone (with a small triangle of light on the upper cheek), a shadow below and to the side of the nose, and a shadow directly below the nose.

Classic lighting

Moved light to create short lighting

Change the distance of the light

OK, so here is a big one. Changing the distance of the light can have a big impact on the quality of the light. We mentioned way back at the start about soft and hard light but now we also get introduced to the inverse square law!

Changing the distance of the light

Layout and final image

Moving the light away makes it a smaller light source relative to Pixie, a smaller light source is a harder light and we can see this if we look at the sharper shadows it causes especially around the nose and cheek bone. The other, more noticeable change is that the back ground is now significantly brighter. This is the inverse square law in action. The relative distance from the light to Pixie and the light to the background is now not as great so the light drop off between Pixie and the background is less. Don't get bogged down in the mathematics (doubling the distance illuminates four times the area but consequently makes it four time less intense) just look at what changes the distance actually makes. We are now running the flash at 1/2 power compared to the original 1/8th power to maintain the correct exposure on Pixie.

Classic lighting

Doubling the light distance

Adding a grid

Moving the light back to its original position we can change the look of the shot by adding a grid. A grid focus the light in a tighter direction.

Adding a grid

Layout and final image

Notice how the grid prevents the spill of light onto the background. Adding a grid will also reduce the amount of light the flash head throws, reducing the exposure on your model. You may need to compensate by increasing the flash power. In this example I have left the power at 1/8th as it was in the original one light shot and you can just see a slight reduction in exposure.

No grid

With grid

Change the modifier

Everything has been shot so far using a simple octagonal soft box. We can also change the look by changing the type of modifier. In this example I have use a small beauty dish.

Changing the modifier

Layout and final image

The beauty dish is a smaller light in comparison to the soft box so produces a harder light source. Remember the smaller the light source in comparison to the subject the harder the light appears. Look at the deeper, sharper shadows the beauty dish creates compared to the soft box. The beauty dish also creates a more specular light source giving higher contrast and perceived sharpness. You are not limited to octagonal soft boxes and beauty dishes remember, your modifier could be a rectangular soft box, strip soft box, diffuser, reflector dish, gobo spotlight even the walls and ceilings can be used to change the quality of your light source.

Using octagonal soft box

Using a beauty dish

Full length

We have looked at a lot of head and should images but let's look at considerations for full length shots. most of the principles we have looked at all still apply but for full length shots we need to look at light coverage more.

Full length with an octagonal soft box

Layout and final image using an octagonal soft box

If we use an octagonal soft box to light full length shots then we can expect there to be drop off in light as we move towards the ground (unless you are aiming the soft box at the models legs of course!) This may of course be exactly the look you want - there is no right and wrong. Octagonal soft boxes are favoured for portraits because they give a nice round catch light if you put them in the correct place but their purpose is to create a round pool of light centred where you aim them. Let's look at what happens when we use something like a strip soft box.

Layout and final image using a strip soft box

Using a strip soft box we get a consistent light from Pixie's head down to her feet. Also note that there is much more direction to the light with less spilling onto the left-hand side of the background. We could add even more direction by putting a grid of the strip soft box. Again, there is no right or wrong as to which method is used. It all ultimately comes down to the look you want. Of course you could use a strip soft box to fill in the shadow and a second light as a key light which leads us nicely on to the next section - Two Light Setups.