When One Light is Right, Part 1.

We create monsters in our own image from time to time, for better or for worse. Sometimes, we’re even monsters in our own images. I had a wonderful two years living and working in Korea and for a large percentage of that time I ran shoots through the Seoul Strobist Club; we had many talented and eager members and we pushed each other project after project, whether working on commercial jobs or just doing it for fun. I know I wouldn’t be where I am as a photographer without the folks in the SSC and the SPC. I know where I would be – taking bad point and shoot vacation photos around Asia. Yikes.

That being said, sometimes we got out of hand. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pull out as many lights as possible just to see whether or not I could do it. Sometimes I’d light a scene with five, six, seven lights or more and work out lighting diagrams so intricate that the final frame itself became secondary to the act of shooting. Sure, it’s loads of fun to see how much light you can get into a scene, but it’s also important not to lose focus of the job you’re trying to do. I brought myself back down to earth a few months ago and decided to try and light as many scenes as possible with one artificial source – strobe, desk lamp, space heater, whatever – as often as possible. I’m urging you to do the same; not indefinitely, but for a time. Simply, working with one light can be as freeing as working with none. Knowing your limitations, knowing you have to rely on your brain and not your gear and being unable to pull another strobe out of your bag at the drop of a hat, should open you up to a whole other world of creative possibilities if you find yourself in a rut, like I did a few months ago. Try it.

The first project I worked on, and, in a way, the impetus for all this, was me. Or, rather, Flash. I needed a new headshot for print credits and wanted to create something with a timeless, classic vibe. I didn’t want to end up with an image that would look tired two weeks from yesterday. So, with that in mind (and, to be honest, little else at the time!) Jahrensy and I got to shooting.


Rap off the top and wrap it all around. Omni-directionality, baby!

People complain about using one light often; they say that it results in flat, awkward images. This is true, sure, if you’re using your light on-camera. But when you vary the angle and position of the light you can create very dramatic scenes. You can use shadows as a negative light, in a way, and they can be every bit as powerful as your key light. Take Jahrensy for instance:


I sat Megs down and positioned one SB-80DX flash unit in a small softbox only a few inches from her face. Any closer and the light source would be in the frame (I’m always cropping softboxes/umbrellas out of images, gah!). Notice how I positioned it; the light is coming from high camera left, of course, but it’s also slightly behind Meg’s face, and, because it’s so close and such a large source, it appears to wrap around her, giving her face a great deal of depth against the dark background. This is probably the most important thing to remember when shooting with one light – you want drama and depth. The light cuts across her face but starts to fall away, and this is where we let the shadows take over and do their dirty work. It’s soft (remember your distance equations!) and provides for a nice big catchlight. Simple and effective.

This setup couldn’t possibly be any easier; trust me. Try it. You’ll have fun with this one.


Once we locked in the look we wanted we experimented with a few different angles. I took my seat, handed the camera to my intrepid second shooter and we got just what we were looking for; a classically styled, timeless (in our estimation) portrait that I don’t have to feel weird about sending out to magazines and papers. It doesn’t look like it was taken with a point and shoot camera on the brightest day of the summer (why do writers always have such horrible portaits?!). Bing, bang, boom.


We took the concept a step further to have a little fun with it. Remember when I talked about negative lighting and letting the shadows do the work? That’s exactly what we did in the next image, a test frame for a magazine project I was (and still am, sigh) working on at the time. One light (the same set up as above, though there’s a little more distance to give us harder light and sharper shadows) plenty of gauze and some foolish play acting.


These are simple, effective and evocative portraits that you can set up in seconds and do in any room in your house; the first two we shot in the kitchen and the second on a park bench opposite our apartment. The reason I’ve showcased a couple with my own mug (other than being flamboyantly narcissistic, of course) is that you can practice on yourself until you get the look you want – then you’re ready to rock and roll in the field with little learning to do and no questions to ask.

To The Field We Go!

Speaking of working in the field, I’ve taken this one light is right philosophy out shooting a number of times. In April I shot acclaimed accordionist Alexander Sheykin for Groove Magazine using one light. In this frame I positioned Alex close enough to the wall that it would bounce some light back (we talked about wrapping and shaping!) but kept it at a strong enough angle to allow my shadows to the left to do their work. With a smaller aperture I controlled what little ambient there was in the scene and let my little softbox do all the heavy lighting. Two or three lights in this scene would have been overkill.


Creating images with one of your own lights doesn’t mean you should ignore the ambient sources around you. I lit the following image with one strobe and the dramatic installation lighting on site at the Samsung complex we were shooting. In fact, my light is only throwing a touch of fill on Alex’s face in this scene; the heavy work is being done by what we’ve got around us. Dramatically different looks between the two images – still the same philosophy.



One light action with Wine Korea’s Joshua Hall at Sortino’s in Itaewon, Seoul. I have one light on Joshua coming from a small softbox high camera right and ambient doing the fill (and exposing the background). Notice something about the last two images? This sort of lighting can be done virtually anywhere and in seconds.



On location with actor/model Kalan Ray next. This time we’re shooting during the waning light of day in Namdaemun Night Market, Seoul. One light, high camera right in a softbox, as close as I can get it to Kalan without it showing up in the frame (it was, before I cropped it!). I wanted to mix the ambient and my own light naturally here, so I’m shooting at a smallish aperture for this lens (f/4), but since I’m using a longer piece of glass on my APS-C sensor, I still get a brilliant Depth of Field which = a creamy smooth background. I also have a Graduated Neutral Density filter (+4) on my lens to keep me from having to go to an even smaller aperture, as I really didn’t want to get any of the background elements into sharper focus. People often ask me how they can get good results doing flash work outdoors in bright light. “Easily,” I tell them. All you need is a single strobe (let the sun be your fill!), a bag of Neutral Density filters (if you plan on shooting with a large aperture) and a light source you can get nice and tight.


One Light Creativity.

Shooting with one strobe has been creatively freeing. Knowing that I can’t reach into my kit and pull out 100 other flashes on a job helps me focus on what I do have and what I need to achieve. Yeah, I’ve said this already. I’m saying it again. Shooting with one light will help you light and shoot better. When I decided to shoot my largest assignment to date with only one strobe I initially thought I was taking a big risk. Turns out it was just the thing to get my juices flowing.

Shooting famed fashion photographer Vincent Sung for a style + luxury article on Seoul at Between, one of the swankier hangouts in Seoul’s Itaewon. Can you guess which light is mine and which is the ambient? Of course you can. You’re brilliant.



Continuing our mission at Anyang Art Park south of Seoul. I made this frame with one light directly behind Megan, bare, tossing light in all directions to round out the tunnel. With it positioned strategically, there’s no need for another light as one creates a perfect silhouette and fills up the rest of the frame. This lead the magazine article I mentioned above as a two-page spread; I wouldn’t want to change anything about it. It’s my favourite flash image of the year and just maybe my favourite frame ever. It took two seconds to light and even less to shoot. You can’t beat that kind of simplicity. In months previous I might have tried to light this from five different directions with five different sources and sucked the essence of the image right out of it.



One light in the house of blocks. Works for me. The position of your light is everything when you’re doing flash work; it’s even more important when you’re tooling around with one.



One light + ambient sunlight in the giant tunnel of love at Anyang Art Park. When you know you’re using one light you’re free to search out exciting compositions rather than elaborate lighting sets. We shot about a dozen different looks at this place in less than two hours. We wouldn’t have done half as much work had we been hauling around twice as much gear.



Thus ends part one of the one light is right rant. Part two, coming next week, will focus on lighting scenes with a single strobe when on assignment far from home, when carrying tons of gear into the field isn’t practical and when you need to use everything at your disposal to get the job done. Megan and I are on the tail end of a journey that has taken us from South Korea to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Borneo, New Zealand and across the USA since July 1 of this year and we’re excited to settle down for a few months, get some work done and pump out some new content. I hope you enjoy this and what’s to come!

I haven’t stepped foot on North American soil in nearly 18 months… it feels good to be back! I’m currently shooting in San Francisco and focusing on commercial work though we are booking weddings, engagement sessions and all manner of other fun stuff. Should be fun.

Unless you don’t think so. Then I’m sad.



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