Barnet Workshops » Sharing Experience, Information, Inspiration

One light portrait setup

This one light portrait, or headshot, of our great model Brenda was made at one of our Beginning Studio Lighting & Posing workshops. There is no retouching, only LR corrections and shadow detail was increased in PS. The background is a painted canvas we use for formal portraits, and can be lit with a background light. During this workshop we “build” the lighting by adding each element one by one. First the main light, then a reflector, then a second light, maybe a color gel, and so on. Of course, you can make a beautiful, well lit portrait using only one light, in a soft box in this case, and a reflector. That’s what this post is about, specifically, the best way to position these 2 elements to create a nicely lit portrait. This is a traditional way to use these tools, there are many other ways to use them to create more edgy or creative lighting and different moods.


Brenda was lit with a medium Chimera soft box without a grid or egg crate, and a 42″ round silver reflector. The diagram below shows how some photographers would instinctively position the soft box and reflector. The soft box is aimed right at the subject and the reflector is positioned on the other side, away from getting in the way of the camera, to light the opposite side of Brenda’s face. This positioning can produce adequate results.



The diagram below is how we lit this one light portrait. At first glance it looks pretty much the same as the diagram above, however, there are subtle but significant differences. The box is not aimed at the subject, it’s “feathering” the subject. Also, the box is close to the subject, especially the right side of the box. allowing the far end of the box to reach the far side of the subject’s face. This provides more of a “wrap around” effect. We’ve often heard the term “wrap around” lighting, and we all know what it means, but, in my opinion, it’s a very bad way to describe this effect, because light does not “wrap around”. Light travels only on a straight line and does not bend or turn corners. What’s happening here is that some of the surface of the box is now actually reaching the far side of the face in a straight line. With less intensity because it’s traveling farther (inverse square law). This provides a smooth and gradual transition from the dark to the light side of the face and nice shadows to show shape and depth. With this soft box placement, especially with a large box, a reflector may not be needed. The result would be a more dramatic look but there would be detail on the shadow side, especially if there was a white wall near by.


Enter the round 42″silver reflector. These reflectors are very efficient, often too efficient so we can turn them around and use the white side. Here, the silver reflector is placed at an angle, just off camera view to continue the direction of the light, rather than create a different light source on the other side. This gives us a nice transition avoiding a darker area in the center of the face that could result if the positioning of the reflector in the diagram above was used.
The reflector in this lighting set up, silver or white, will determine the contrast and drama of the overall image. If the portrait is to be used in a real estate agent’s brochure it can be more evenly lit. If it’s a portrait to be framed it can be made more dramatic, and so on.
In our workshops we also would add other light sources, background light, hair or separation lights, strips, etc.

Let us know if you liked this post and if you have any questions or ideas for future ones!

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