Dramatic One-light Lighting, without the Drama

Don’t you love it when you have one shoulder bag of camera gear, and you arrive at a brand new location to create a dramatic portrait, the existing light sucks, and you have 5 minutes to figure out what you’re going to do, set up and start shooting? And there is a crowd of people watching you? Yah, I actually DO love it!

This situation is not uncommon for wedding and event photographers. It is also common for me, when I go to teach at trade shows. Fortunately, with the right gear and a little knowledge of how to use it, you can confidently create a beautiful portrait anywhere. I really do believe that…anywhere.

At WPPI, I was doing presentations in the Westcott Lighting booth. I was demonstrating our new product, the LunaGrip, but the results I’ll talk about could also be achieved with a large soft box, if you already have one.

To create a “dramatic” portrait, you generally would use lighting with more shadows, to shape and emphasize your subject’s features, and to create the mystery, or drama. Shadows can be used for good, or evil! For them to be flattering, they should have soft transitional edges from light to dark. It should be gradual, without harsh lines.

To create this with just one light, the key is to use a diffused light source that is fairly large in relation to your subject. For lighting a single person, a 40” round diffused light is absolute beautiful. It should be positioned about 2 feet from the subject and the subject should be posed so that their face is turned slightly towards the light, creating short lighting. This is generally best for one-light setups and also very flattering to most faces.

I use my LunaGrip because it is very compact when folded (fitting in the side of my shoulder bag), and sets up in less than a minute. A speedlight mounts behind it and I have an instant, perfectly round, 40” soft box.

I kept my subject – the lovely dancer, Jaylene, about 10 feet from the background so that it would stay deep black. Also, instead of mounting my LunaGrip on a light stand (which I could have done) I asked an innocent bystander to hold it for me, allowing us to easily follow Jaylene’s face movement, keeping the lighting pattern optimized (maintaining short light shaping).

With this simple setup, we could do close-up headshots, 3/4 shots, and even full-length portraits. This single light setup is great for full-length images because there is a natural and gradual light fall-off from head to toe – keeping emphasis on her face while still shaping her body and revealing detail in her clothing.

Finally, I added a second LunaGrip, this time with the silver reflective cover on it, as a fill light. I placed it directly under the model’s face, secured on a light stand. I placed my main diffused LunaGrip directly above her face, forming a V-shape or “clamshell” type of lighting. I placed my camera in the narrow opening of the V and voila! Beautiful, softer light with amazing catchlights in the eyes.

The point of this demo was to illustrate how little gear you actually need to create professional, beautiful lighting. With a single diffused main light, roughly 40” in diameter, you can usually forgo the traditional fill-light or reflector on the opposite side of the face, simplifying your setups. The key is in bringing the front edge of the light source forward, and towards the lens, as much as possible. When done correctly, the spill light wraps the subject and shapes with beautiful shadows.

Do you have any favorite single-light setups? Share them with us and I appreciate any feedback!

The single light works perfect for a dramatic headshot.

The single light works perfect for a dramatic headshot.

For a 3/4 pose, we still kept Jaylene facing the light, but turned her body slightly away. We moved the LunaGrip just a bit further away as well and the shadows become more dramatic.

For a 3/4 pose, we still kept Jaylene facing the light, but turned her body slightly away. We moved the LunaGrip just a bit further away as well and the shadows become more dramatic.

For the full-length image, a single light source about 40" in diameter works beautifully when placed just above head height. Notice the emphasis on her face, with a gradual and natural fall-off towards her feet.

For the full-length image, a single light source about 40" in diameter works beautifully when placed just above head height. Notice the emphasis on her face, with a gradual and natural fall-off towards her feet.

For this close-up, we placed the diffused LunaGrip directly above and a silver reflector mounted LunaGrip just below her face. You can see a wee bit of its shadow in the bottom left. 

For this close-up, we placed the diffused LunaGrip directly above and a silver reflector mounted LunaGrip just below her face. You can see a wee bit of its shadow in the bottom left. 

The Westcott LunaGrip is a patented product I designed for them and it never leaves my camera bag! It is available at: www.LunaGrip.com

The Westcott LunaGrip is a patented product I designed for them and it never leaves my camera bag! It is available at: www.LunaGrip.com