One Light

You can do so much with just one light.  One £30 YN460-II for example.  There really is no excuse for not having at least one flash 🙂

Robert Harrington gave a great presentation at the B&H theatre on getting many looks out of one light – and you can watch it here.  I thought this would make a great live demo for the camera club I belong to and worked out 10 or so looks to present within a 2 hour slot.   I ran through them in a practice session with some fellow photographers and we got it done in 1:45.  It was going to take longer on the night as I’d be waffling on about the light as we went – and hopefully, there would be questions!

Here’s my pick of the looks we did on the night with model Paris Spencer, who always does a great job on these shoots.  For all of these shots, the camera is in manual exposure at 1/160th at F/8 and ISO 64 to 640.  The flash is in manual, and when off the camera, is triggered by using the pop-up in commander mode.   The popup does not fire during the exposure, it’s just used to send data and commands to the remote SB900.

We started with the flash on the camera – left, and the first shot is direct flash.  When should you use this?  Well, probably never unless it’s a bit of fill but as a main light, it sucks.  I wanted to show just how bad flash lighting could be, so we took the mugshot, on the left.  Paris looks like she just got arrested…


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Of course the upside of having the flash on the camera, is there’s no other kit:  no stand, no triggers etc so you can shoot on the move.  Run & Gun.  So, with the flash still on the camera, what can we do to improve the light?  We can place a virtual light on any surface, or general collection of things in the room by pointing the Speedlight head at the place we want the light.  On Camera Bounce – right.  We can even control the size of our virtual light by zooming the Speedlight – the tighter we zoom it, the smaller our projected light will be.  So where do we want our virtual light?   I tend to place it slightly behind me, and off to the side the model is facing – and we get the look on the right, above.  It’s a night and day difference – there’s still definition to the face, and some nice shadows, but they’re softer and the whole image is much more flattering.  I use this setup for impromptu headshots  as well (“while you’re here, could you do me a new headshot for my email/LinkedIn/Facebook?”).

Now you can play around with the direction, project the light overhead, right behind you, off to the side etc.  Don’t worry too much about what’s out there to reflect off – you’ll be surprised just how much light you can get back off of people, furniture, distant walls etc.  Just be aware that the light will pick up the colour of the things it bounces off.  Shoot in TTL and the exposure will mostly work itself out.

Ok so that’s on-camera flash, however the most creative control comes if you put the light somewhere else – other than on top of your camera.  So what else do you need apart from your flash to do this?  Well first you need something to put it on.  Most flashguns come with a plastic foot you can attach so it will stand up on a flat surface.  Using this you can put it on the floor, on  a mantelpiece, shelf, window-sill or if you’re careful, on top of an open door.  Mostly, though you’re going to put it on a light stand.  You don’t need anything too robust or heavy for a Speedlight.  Get a lightweight portable stand and expect to pay anywhere from £15 to £30.   I mostly use the aluminium Prot-X stands.   They are light, and quick to put up and take down due to the flip style clamps.  The only drawback with these is that as 3 section stands, they are still pretty long when collapsed.   A stand that collapses shorter like Calumet’s portable light stand might be better, but as it’s made of steel, it does weigh quite a bit more.  It also has conventional screw clamps, and these do take quite a bit longer to operate.

You’ll also need some way of triggering the flash.  You could use a long cable, but to be frank, in this day and age, you’d have to be pretty desperate.  A trigger and receiver can be had for £10, so if you have a basic manual flash, get one.   If you have a more capable flash, like my SB900 it will no doubt have some form of remote capability built in, and for this workshop, I used Nikon’s CLS remote capability – the Advanced Wireless Lighting or AWL.    Up until recently, with the SB5000, AWL exclusively used an optical signalling system, using the flash on the camera (either the pop-up or a hot-shoe mounted flash) to send data and commands to up to 3 groups of remote flashes.  Contrary to popular belief and intarweb chat, this works very well.  Even outside, it’s rare that I have a problem getting these to fire, although outside you will need to ensure the sensor is facing the commander flash on the camera.  Oh, and also contrary to about 50% of the tutorials I see on this subject, the sensor is not behind the big red plastic cover thing on the front of your SB900:  it’s the small round thing on the side of the unit  (and Gary Fong – they definitely do not “self meter” !).  Inside, no problems at all:  as the third fallacy regarding Nikon’s AWL system – that it requires “line of sight” is also not true.   The light just has to reach the sensor, however it does not matter at all, how many things it bounces off before it gets there:-

If you really do need fancier radio triggers, for Nikon I recommend the Yongnuo YN622N-TX controller and YN622N receivers.  In fact, you can now buy a YN685N flash with a built in 622 receiver.  This system will do TTL, and High Speed Sync over radio.   For Canon, you could do the same, or buy Yongnuo’s YN-E3-RT controller and YN600EX-RT flashes which are compatible with Canon’s own RT system (but for a tenth of the price).  Why would I recommend these over Nikon or Canon’s own radio systems?  Because, quite frankly, they are taking the mickey with the prices – if they were say, double, or maybe even triple the price, you might value the small but noticeable increase in quality and build.  But for ten times as much?  Forget it.   I could afford to lose or break 9 of these Yongnuo flashes or triggers and still come out on top.

_DSC5086-WebsiteimageSo Now you have your light on a stick, and the camera can fire it remotely.  If we still want soft light, we could bounce the flash off a wall nearer the subject and shoot from some other place – further away.  This gives us much more flexibility with our composition, now the light does not have to originate at camera.  We can also, just fill the room with light:  we put the stand up high, and far away from the model, aim the light straight up, so that no light will go directly from the flash to the model.

Now this light might be great for fashion, where the even nature of it shows up every little detail on the clothes, but lets face it – it’s boring.  It’s flat – there is no structure and no shadows.  To get some dimension into the image, we need some direction to the light.  In the image above, light is bouncing all over the room, and is reaching our model from every direction.  There’s a little bit of a bias from above as I have the ceiling.  We need a more definite direction.  We need to point the light directly at our model. 


imageLook what a difference that makes.  Now we have form, structure and drama in the shot.  Her cheekbones are carved out, and the shot just looks more edgy.  Here we have the one light, up high and aimed directly at the model’s face.  The SB900 has a “zoom” facility designed to match the lighting pattern to the field of view of the lens when the flash is on the camera and pointed forwards.  Off camera though, we can use this to narrow the beam down and concentrate the light.  I’ve zoomed it all the way in to 200mm for this show which produces some very crisp shadows and more specular highlights.  This is similar to the light you find in vintage Hollywood glamour shots.

We don’t always want such hard light though, and even zoomed all the way out to give the widest spread of light, a Speedlight is still a small source.  It is the size of the light source when viewed from the model’s position that controls the quality of the shadow edges.  So how can we make it bigger?  We’ve already looked at bouncing off nearby surfaces.  If we want some more consistency; a more controllable result though, we can use light modifiers to make (amongst other things) a bigger light.  Perhaps the simplest of these is the shoot-through umberella.




imageFor this image, I have my one light – the same SB900 firing into a white shoot-through umberella above and to the right of the model.  We used a white reflector off to camera left to fill in the shadows.   When you use a shoot-through umberella on your Speedlight, you have a degree of control over the size of the light, by moving the light further into the brolly, you make the light smaller, and less even.  If you want nice, soft wrapping light as in the image above, pull the umberella back until the light fills it completely.  Use the test button on the light to see this, or to be really sure, take  picture of the front of the brolly with the light active, and underexposed.  As Speedlights all have recessed flash tubes with the reflector bowl behind, you need to also attach the diffusion dome that came with the light to send some light out in all directions.  This will help even out the light across the umberella.  There will still be a hot-spot in the middle, however, if you aim this right, it can work in your favour, with a nice fall-off of light down the subject.  You can always aim the hot spot so it clears the top of the model’s head, and use the more even light around the edge.

One thing to be aware of with shoot through brollies:  as much light goes backwards and then all over the place as forwards towards our model.   This can work in your favour:  in the shot above the light bouncing about has filled in the shadows under her chin and eyes nicely.  If you want to control the spill though, you’re better off with a softbox.

_DSC5225-Edit-WebsiteimageWe can also use the shoot through brolly to provide classic beauty light:  a large, soft light source above and in front of the model, with a white reflector below to fill in the shadows.   In this case, I am also using it to light the background, which is another white reflector held in place by Nick and Simon.  I would not normally do this, as in order to get the background white, it has to receive about the same amount of light as the model.  This means I have to back the umbrella up, so the difference in the distance from the light for the background model is smaller.   Backing the light up though, means it gets smaller, and therefore harsher.  Even with the brolly some 5 feet away, I lightened the background in Lightroom using the adjustment brush.



_DSC5176-Edit-WebsiteimageNext I switched to a silver reflective umberella.  Unlike the shoot-through, you can control where the light goes a lot more with a reflective brolly.  None of it goes backwards through the umbrella for a start.  Here I put the brolly to camera right, pointing across the scene – at 90 degrees to the direction of shooting.  Just like the shoot through,  you can vary the light by moving the Speedlight in and out of the brolly (actually you slide the brolly in and out of the mounting hole in your Speedlight bracket).  Move it in further and you’ll get a more concentrated, punchier light.  Use the dome diffuser and position the light just inside the edge of the brolly to get maximum fill.  You can also play around with the zoom on the light if yours has it for a similar effect.  For more contrast and drama in our light, collapse the brolly over the light.

Now, here’s something I see being sold all over the intarweb and recommended widely:  convertible brollies.   These allow you to remove the black, silver lined outer cover to convert your reflective brolly to a shoot through.  Sounds good right?  You only need one umberella to do both jobs.  The thing is, in practice, especially when you’re shooting “real” people (i.e. people you didn’t hire for the job) who all think a photograph should take the time it takes to raise the camera to your eye, click, and not a second longer, do you really want to faff about taking each of the six points off, or even worse, attempt to refit  the cover to convert it back to a reflective brolly again?  Just buy one of each – these brollies are like £15 and weigh nothing.

_DSC5115-Edit-WebsiteimageFor ultimate hard contrasty drama, we need to go back to a bare Speedlight.  Same position, zoomed in tight to 200mm and aimed from the side.  If you do get some spill onto the background, or flare into the lens (which can happen even with the light zoomed all the way in), use pieces of A4 black card to flag (block) the light.  In the end, for this shot, I rolled a sheet into a tube and secured it with a piece of black gaffer tape.  I then put this quick and dirty snoot over the light.  Used from higher up and pointing down, this light approximates the hard light used by Hollywood studio shooters back in the day.




imageAt the opposite end of the lighting catalogue, we have V flats.    As the name suggests, this is a very flat light, and is pretty much the same as the straight on, on-camera flash light we started with, except it is huge, and therefore softer.  This look is popular with fashion magazines:  it shows great detail in the clothes, whilst at the same time, providing a flattering light for skin as it fills in all the little bumps and lines.  In a permanent studio, V-flats are typically constructed from 2 large white foam core boards taped together along the long edge to make a V.   These 10 foot boards are not exactly portable though, so I made mine from two 2mx1.5m pop-up silver reflectors, held together at the back by plastic A clamps.  I used the silver side as one Speedlight is going to struggle to fill such a large area, and with the reflectors quite far away, the crinkly source would all average out by the time the light reached the model.

You could also use a really big silver reflective brolly for this, which would be easier to put up.   You can get 2m (diameter) reflective brollies for around £40 (in the UK, from Cotswold Photos, via ebay).  Westcott also make them, if you want to pay more for it.



imageHang on!  Isn’t this article called “One Light”?  This shot was taken with the same single SB900 used for all the others.  It’s doing double-duty as both key and rim light.  The light is behind the model, and by aiming it just past the model’s head, it can then be caught and reflected back onto her face using a silver reflector.  I’m using silver again as we’re fighting to recover as much of the light as we can to reflect back as our key light.

You are quite restricted with the angles you can shoot and the direction the model can look as the reflector and light angles are quite constrained.  It does work well though and you can move the reflector around as long as you move the light to follow it._DSC5275-2-Edit-Website

For this last shot, I used a bare Speedlight, aimed at the model from camera right and zoomed in a little bit.   In front of the light, I had someone hold a “cookie” or “cucoloris – basically a piece of cardboard with some slots cut in it…  I cut three 1 inch wide slots into a piece of cardboard about A3 in size using a Stanley knife.  Holding this fairly close to the light renders the slots out of focus and produces a subtle variation in the light across both the model and the background.  To make the shadows more distinct, move the cookie closer to the model (and further away from the light|).  Of course, you can’t move it too close as it will become too small.  If you want really sharp shadows, you’ll need to make a really big cookie and put it really close to the model.

Hopefully, we showed just some of the variety you can get using just one Speedlight.  I did use a relatively expensive SB900 for the demo, so I could adjust the power from the camera and speed things up.   There is nothing here that cannot be done with a very basic light though.  Even where I’ve used the zoom facility, you can attach that rolled up black card as a snoot and get a similar effect.  You’ll lose some light as you’re blocking the light rather than focusing it down into a smaller space.  As long as it’s still 2-3 stops more than the ambient the shot will work.

So with a simple Speedlight, a couple of large popup reflectors, a stand, some triggers, a couple of brollies, and some cardboard you can generate all of these looks – and all of that kit can be packed down into one bag.  A portable studio, that will cost about £130.

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