Simple One-Light Directional Portrait Lighting

IMG_1818 Lighting can often be one of the most intimidating things to learn but it doesn’t need to be that way. I think the problem is that many people get intimidated thinking they need tons of lighting gear in order to make good images. Today we are going to look at using a single light source and just a little planning to give us a look we are going for. In the first example we will dissect a very simple couple portrait to see how we can achieve directional lighting in order to make the scene look as natural as possible.

In order first sample shot we have a couple standing against a wall with light coming in from the right of the camera creating a fairly simple broad lighting effect. The problem here was that the shot was taken at 4:30pm in May so we still had a good two hours before the sun would go down and give us ideal lighting. Secondly, the two walls we had available faced either due west directly into the sun or faced east and was completely in the shade. I ruled out the first option and went for the easier shot by placing the couple in the shade. With no additional light coming in we just didn’t have an interesting shot and because we were under a bridge, there wasn’t a good angle to use a reflector to bounce any light into the area.

In order to create the directional lighting, a Canon 580 EX II speedlite was fitted with a Lumodi 14″ beauty dish and a PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver. The camera was a Canon EOS 50D with a PocketWizard MiniTT1 transmitter. My assistant positioned the light at about a 45 degree angle to the couple’s left and about two feet above their heads. This provided a nice directional quality to the light by simulating a late afternoon sun position but with the ability to completely control the light output. The beauty dish provided for a softer transition from the highlights to the shadows versus the sun would have been much harsher shadows due to is smaller apparent size.

The following diagram illustrates this lighting setup.


ISO 200 Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM @ 63mm f/5.6 1/200 sec Flash: eTTL


In our second example we wanted to create more of a rim or Rembrandt style lighting on the subject. In this case the shot was taken at 7:15pm and the sun was far too low on the horizon to provide and real light other than a little bit of ambient. Using basically the same exact setup as before, a Canon 580 EX II speedlite was fitted with a Lumodi 14″ beauty dish and a PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver. The camera was a Canon EOS 50D with a PocketWizard MiniTT1 transmitter, this time the setup was stationary on a lightstand and positioned just to the left and above the subject and is just barely out of the frame in this shot.


ISO 400 Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM @ 70mm f/5.6 1/160 sec Flash: eTTL

Had this shot been taken about 30 minutes earlier the sun would have created basically this identical light pattern although we might have had to use a touch of fill light to keep the shadows from being too harsh. Shooting later in the evening, we can create the effect that we wanted the sun to have created had it not been too late in the day.

As we continue to look at more lighting setups we will add additional light sources, reflectors,  different diffusers, and other tricks to get the light to look as natural as possible but still trying to maintain as much control over the light as possible.

Equipment Used:

Camera: Canon EOS 50D
Lenses: Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM
Lights: Canon 580 EX II
Modifiers: Lumodi 14″ Beauty Dish
Accessories Westcott Light Stand
Processing: Lightroom 3.0


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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