Studio Lighting With One Light – Tutorial

Or, You Can Cook Small in a Big Wok, but You Can’t Cook Big in a Small Wok

Photography is a very expensive hobby and an even more expensive career path. Sticker shock can be severe when you’re first learning the craft, and nowhere will prices bite you in the bum more so than lighting equipment. It ain’t cheap to set up a fully functioning photography studio. Especially not if you endeavor to do it right and care about creating beautifully crafted and fabulously lit images.

You don’t have to have multiple studio strobe heads and their accompanying modifiers to produce lovely, nuanced photographs. You don’t actually have to have ANY lights, other than that big ball of nuclear energy in the sky. However, if you want to add a little extra dimension to your images, or you’d like to shoot somewhere other than a fully sun struck spot, adding some supplemental lighting could be just the ticket.

You can achieve a lot of different effects with a single light source. Let’s take a look at them one by one, shall we?


It’s quite easy to set up forĀ  simple, classic low key lighting. Below is a diagram for a basic low key lighting setup.

Studio Lighting with One Light

Years ago, before I had a professional studio or any commercial quality lighting equipment, I still practiced and shot and tried and dreamed and schemed about ALL things photography. I shot the image below of my youngest daughter about a million years ago, in front of a large piece of black velvet fabric taped to the wall and one itty bitty, teeny tiny cheap-o studio flash head. I think I paid $60 dollars for that strobe and it came with a non-replaceable bulb. In other words, when the bulb went, the entire thing went. I used that unit HARD for about a year before it finally fizzled.

Studio Lighting with One Light

You can use a dark colored wall as a backdrop and dispense with a background stand and seamless paper, if you’re not feeling particularly flush. Reflectors can be used to either stand in for a light source, or bounce light back from a light source, thereby rendering them effectively into a second light. The shot below was done with one light and a reflector, which acted as a second light. See the diagram below it for further detail.

Studio Lighting with One Light

Studio Lighting with One Light


Hold on to your hats for this one, because it’s rocket science all the way. Or not. By making one key change to the low key lighting setup above, you can achieve nice, mid key lighting with a single light source. The change? The color of the backdrop. Use a light colored backdrop, place the lights in the same position relative to the camera, subject and background and viola’, a mid key photograph.

I photographed the lovely woman below in her home, in a white room filled with white furniture. There was a large bank of windows facing north behind her. This suffused the room with a soft, somewhat cold light. I used my camera’s dedicated flash ON camera to pop just a little bit of light and warmth onto her face. I did use a diffuser head on the flash to soften it a bit. The results are a well lit, ‘natural’ look without harsh shadows or obvious highlights. I have been approached by several different stocks agencies to sign with them on the strength of this image. Natural ‘lifestyle’ images are always in demand. You don’t have to be a super pro to sell some of you A list images through microstock agencies. Check out my article, Passive Income From Microstock Photography to learn more.

Studio Lighting with One Light


The high fashion genre of shooting can be VERY expensive to produce. At its extreme, multiple light sources and modifiers are used, often fired with remote triggering devices or else high-end dedicated flashes with built in sensors are employed. Cyc walls or extra wide seamless paper is used and studios have lots of space and headroom to back up and layer lighting.

However, it is entirely possible to create certain high fashion looks with minimal equipment and space. The image below by Evan Romine was lit with a single beauty dish. You can ‘read’ the catch lights in her eyes and also notice no rim lighting from another light source. Imagine this as a center spread in a magazine with text dropped in on the right hand side. It has the perfect flattened perspective and negative space to be used to advertise anything and everything from hair care products, cosmetics, skin care and/or clothing.

Studio Lighting with One Light

This photo of recording artist Shelby Lynne shows the tell-tale signs of a beauty dish. Notice the perfectly circular catch lights in her eyes and the flattened perspective (there is little to no separation of the subject from the background.) Another sign of a beauty dish is the thin, hard shadow that usually outlines the subject.

Studio Lighting with One Light

Here is another image from that same CD. This one is an extreme close up, which really lets you see the effect of a beauty dish. Studying the catch lights in the subject’s eyes is a fantastic way to figure out how an image was lit. In fact, many professional commercial shooters strive for a distinctive catch light ‘signature’. Study catch lights and learn how to reverse engineer the lighting set ups that attract you.

Studio Lighting with One Light

You can buy a beauty dish or you can make one for yourself. Check out my post Make a Beauty Dish for Studio Lighting and have a go at it for yourself. I tried it and found it fairly quick and easy to make and use.


While I don’t think it’s truly possible to create a real high key image using only one light, it can certainly give an image shot outside on a bright, sunny day more snap, crackle and POP! I took this shot of my first cousin and her granddaughter outside, in the yard on a bright, spring day. They were back lit and I popped a bit of fill flash in with my camera’s dedicated flash, positioned on camera with an L bracket. I revved up the saturation and added a vignette for a super lurid, David LaChapelle-eques bit of fun. Homage homage homage recognize….

Studio Lighting with One Light

This next image is one of my all time favorites. It’s a mother and her two daughters playing and tumbling around outside. I positioned them so the sun, which was sinking low on the horizon, was back lighting them (notice the warm rim lighting.) I used a Quantum Q flash set up on a stand of its own, as close to the camera as I could get it. It was a pain in the horse’s ass to use, but the results were well worth it! Had I not popped in that little bit of fill flash, their faces would have been unacceptably dark.

Studio Lighting with One Light

While I NOW know you really can’t produce a classic, clean, little-to-no shadows, high key photograph with only one light, that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried. I realize many of my readers are just beginning and are trying to learn the skills for all sorts of shooting. I too, was once a beginner and wanted to produce photographs like those I was seeing in various magazines. (It is my personal opinion that some of the finest, most avaunt-garde, flamboyant and dazzlingly creative photography you will ever see is found in the high end fashion rags.)

Here is one of my very very VERY early attempts at a high key lighting set up. Once again, this is my youngest daughter. I sat her in front of a white paneled wall and positioned my one and only light directly in front and slightly above her. Yes, this is the very same cheap light I talked about earlier. This image was shot on film and a soft-focus aka diffusion filter was screwed onto the front of the lens in an effort to blur out the stripes in the paneling behind her. It is by no means my finest moment as either a photographer or a lighting wizard, but it is a lovely image of my daughter and a great step along the way to learning how to light. If you don’t try, you can’t fail…but you also can’t possibly get better. (That hair cut is a whole other story….let’s just say there’s a reason we don’t let 4 year olds cut their own hair…..)

Studio Lighting with One Light

Later she grew up and I learned how to produce a real high key image.

Studio Lighting with One Light

I do have another daughter who was also often my victim muse as well. Perhaps another time I’ll explain all the thinking, influences and effort that went into creating this image of her.

Studio Lighting with One Light


If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

High Key Studio Lighting – Tutorial

Photographing Young Children With Low Key Lighting – Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Headshots – Tutorial

How to Set Up a Photo Booth in Your Home

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

Photographing Babies, Birth to One Year – Tips and Techniques

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

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