Keep Photography Simple, Stupid!

One of my favorite techniques for capturing a person on film in a studio is to use only a single light source. This simplified approach suits me well. It is quick to set up, less intimidating to inexperienced models, and easy to accomplish in any indoor situation, at home or abroad. In addition, for those on a limited budget, it is easy to afford.

More importantly, though, with a single light I can create dramatic illumination that seems to reveal a person’s character more so than with other types of lighting.

Tungsten vs. StrobeKeep the photo simple, so you can get crazy with Photoshop later!" width="300" height="300" /> Keep the photo simple, so you can get crazy with Photoshop later!

Any kind of single strobe or photoflood can be used for this technique. Both types of lights can be controlled to achieve the desired effect. They can be diffused, focused to a narrow beam, and easily repositioned. The decision you have to make has to do with three factors; cost, light output, and heat.

Any flash, no matter how inexpensive, will cost more than a reflector and a light bulb. The latter can be purchased at a hardware store for under $10. Flash units range from less than $100 to a lot more if you purchase a studio power pack.

The second factor is light output. A 500-watt bulb in a reflector puts out a lot of light, but it is very harsh on your subject’s eyes. Squinting does not contribute to a natural-looking portrait. A 100-watt bulb is significantly less bright, of course, but the depth of field available to you is much more limited. In order to use small lens apertures, you need enough light for a correct exposure.

While you can get good results from a small, affordable flash, the amount of light available is several f-stops less than that provided by more expensive Speedotron or Balcar studio units. In addition, the more advanced units feature built-in modeling lights which provide a visual preview of the results. Just as with the 100-watt light bulb, the depth of field choices you have are reduced. To use f/11 or f/16, a faster film must be used, or the flash must be placed very close to the subject.

The Background

Most portrait photographers insist on lighting a person such that he or she appears separated from the background. In an outdoor portrait during daylight hours, this is easy to do simply by using the ambient light. In a studio, a bright background in back of dark hair (or light hair against a dark background) creates the contrast necessary for separation. If a dark background is used with a dark-haired subject, a hair light is employed to create the separation.

The portrait that accompanies this article shows no separation at all between the young girl and the black background. I purposely juxtaposed a model with black hair in front of a black backdrop to meld the two together. Notice what happens to the face. There’s virtually nothing else to look at. Everything in the composition is dark except the only thing that really matters.

By using one light and directing the illumination on the face only, I literally force a viewer’s attention on my subject’s face. With portraits of glamour models, business executives, groups of people, and a bride and groom, this technique isn’t appropriate. But for dramatic individual portrayals, it is simple to do and very effective.

Film choices

If the one light used does not provide a significant level of illumination, you will be forced to use a fast film starting in the ISO 400 range. Medium telephoto lenses are used for most portraits, and this means that to keep the entire face in focus – from the tip of the nose to the ears – a lens aperture of f/8 or smaller is required in most cases (depending upon how close the camera position is to the subject). Small apertures in turn require more light.

If the single light source isn’t bright enough, fast films (or slower films that you push one or two stops) are the only options. Kodak’s T-Max 400 is a good choice, as is Fuji’s Neopan 400 or 1600 or Ilford’s Delta 400. These films are relatively fine grained despite their speed.

On the other hand, a more powerful light source will give you more choices. You can choose a sharp, ultra fine-grained film, or a faster, grainy film can also be used for a more coarse look. Agfapan 25 is an excellent fine-grained film that produces tack sharp negatives. When I use a grainy film like Kodak Tri-X (I usually rate it at EI 320) with a powerful light source, it’s often necessary to cut the power of the output because even with my smallest lens aperture the light may be too bright. This can be done with neutral density gels over the flash, or a polarizing filter can be placed over the camera lens for roughly a two f-stop reduction in exposure.

The Expression

One-light portraits are very stylized. They are compelling and poignant, and I think they are more effective with certain kinds of expressions and body language. Quiet, introspective, and pensive moments are conducive to being portrayed with a single light source. I ask my subjects to sit erect (a slouched posture is never attractive) and look down or off to one side significantly away from the lens axis. (Shooting a person looking slightly to one side of the lens drives me crazy. I think it’s ridiculous.)

Usually, I ask them to close their lips. I might ask for a hint of a smile (with no teeth showing), or a more somber or thoughtful expression.

On occasions when I ask my subjects to look into the lens, I am looking for different qualities depending on the subject. In children, I want to elicit their innocence. Large, luminous eyes in a young face should be level with the camera (too many adults point the cameras down at children). In a young woman, I might ask her to lower her face somewhat with her eyes looking intently into the lens. This makes her eyes appear a bit larger and more sensual.

In a man, strength and assuredness are traits I try to capture. To that end, I might place my single light more to the side and ask for a serious and/or intense expression.


A single light source creates contrasty shadows, so be sure to pay special attention to the shadows on the face and upper body of your subjects. Move the light to a different position until you like what you see. Side lighting offers the most dramatic contrast, where one side of the face is dark. Rembrandt or 45 [degrees] lighting creates classic shadows on the face, while front lighting places shadows on either side of the face and under the nose (if the light is raised high enough) to form the famous “butterfly” shadow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *