One Light Photography Tutorial

How to shoot Portraits with One Light

There are 10 ways to light a portrait with just one light. Can you name them all? Do you know what they look like? Don’t worry we’re going to show everything you need to know in this one light photography tutorial. 

While this tutorial will show creative lighting setups for headshots you can apply most of these tricks and tips to almost any single object in photography.

The direction and angles of lighting are vital to get right, regardless of whether you want to become a pro shooter or just better take family photos. Therefore, if you’re stuck just snapping away without any thought, then you need to learn these one light photography setups.

Single light portrait setups use one key light (or main light as sometimes called).

Each lighting pattern that we’ll demonstrate will show you where to place the light in relation to the subject. Don’t forget that distance is an important part of where you position the light too.

One Light Photography Tutorial

How to Use the One Light

Without getting technical and telling you all about the inverse square law basically the closer the light is to the subject the softer it’ll appear. Conversely, the further the light is away from your subject the harsher the light will be.

Setting your light at the right height is also important when placing the light source. Most of the time you’ll need to place your one light slightly above eye level when shooting portraits.

During this one light photography tutorial, we’ll show you the basic positions on where to place your light to achieve certain patterns. You can add in lighting modifiers over your one light to alter the quality and intensity to your liking.

In portrait photography, you can add in reflectors, umbrellas, snoots, scrims, grids or honeycomb lighting modifiers to alter the spread, quality and shape of the light. We’ll look at these closer later in this tutorial.

Keep this in mind when shooting portraits if you want to make your one light setup for headshots a little more refined and stylised.

Read More: Photography Lighting Tutorial for Beginners

What Lights Can I Use?

There is no agreed standard of what the ‘one light’ needs to be. It all depends on what you’ve got access to right now or what your budget will allow. If you want to just test your arm at one light photos then use the light on your camera phone. Otherwise, raid the draws for a torch (flashlight).

If you want to get a little more creative though then a basic off camera flash or studio-grade strobe head will give you a better quality finish.

The beauty of only using one light is that you won’t end up with mixed colour temperature issues from multiple lights, so just keep your camera on Auto WB (white balance).

One Light Photography Tutorial 1
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One Light Accessories

Technically it’s not another light source so it’s not cheating to use a reflector to help you in your one light photos.

Reflectors are a great way of softening shadows and filling in details in areas that would otherwise be too dark. This can be important for product photography as well as fashion portraits, where details are important. 

Reflectors come in a range of finishes;


  • White – this doesn’t reflect colour so keeps the lighting looking neutral
  • Silver – better for adding a cooler finish in terms of colour tones. 
  • Gold – ideal for sun-kissed portraits and warming the look of skin.
One Light Photography Tutorial 1
One Light Photography Tutorial 1

10 One Light Portrait Setups

One by one we’ll show 10 dramatic one light portrait setups you can try at home on yourself or a buddy. Remember some of the principles of these techniques can also be applied to product and still life photography too.

1. Broad Lighting

Firstly, pose your subject so that their body is side on to the camera and turn their head to face the lens.

Direct a single light towards the nearest (broad) side of their face, keeping the rest in shadow.

One Light Photography Tutorial Broad

2. Narrow Lighting

Secondly, follow the same directions as in Broad lighting. But this time move your light to only light the far (narrow) side of their face.

This will cast the near (broad) side of the face in shadow making your portrait look mysterious.

One Light Photography Tutorial Narrow

3. Rembrandt Lighting

Thirdly, this one light photography setup is taken from the Dutch artist, Rembrandt.

Rembrandt lighting is signified by an inverted triangle underneath the subject’s furthest eye.

Follow the setup of narrow lighting but bring your light further around the front of your subject.

One Light Photography Tutorial Rembrandt

4. Loop Lighting

Next up, following on from Rembrandt lighting is Loop. Bring the light source closer to the camera position.

Maintain the height of the light and shine more light on the cheeks. Aim to keep a gap between shadows beneath the nose and the cheeks.

5. Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting is more commonly applied to female models, as it is designed to emphasise cheeks, and disguise the neck area. It is a favourite amongst many portrait photographers.

Raise the light directly behind the camera position and tilt downwards at 45 degrees. Only Aim to create 2 shadows. One underneath the nose, and the other under the chin.

One Light Photography Tutorial Butterfly

6. Split Lighting

Split lighting is incredibly easy as a one light technique.

Start by facing your subject towards the camera and position a light source 90 degrees to their body. It will ‘split’ the face in half-light and shadow.

Perfect for telling a dark or sinister story.

7. Silhouette Lighting

Place your light behind your subject shrouding their face in shadow.

Using soft lights will cause ‘spill’ and features on the broad side may be visible to the camera.

Harder lights will give you a cut-out silhouette effect.

8. Clamshell Lighting

This portrait light photography pattern uses a light that falls on the subject from above. But you’ll need a reflector under their chin to fill in the shadows for a softer light. The look is characterised by 2 catchlights in each eye and a soft shadow below the subject’s chin. When done correctly it’ll exaggerate the cheekbones and jawline.

Set up a butterfly lighting technique with the light above and behind the camera, but angled down about 45 degrees. Ask your subject to hold a white reflector down by their waist. The reflector will bounce some light back up as a fill.

The resulting soft shadows on the cheekbones can slim the face and define the jawline. It’s like a giant one softbox lighting setup.

9. Floor Lighting (or Under Lighting)

While you may not see floor lighting as flattering it can be used in portrait photography as a creative way of adding mood, drama and atmosphere in a low key setting.

We’ve all done it with a torch in hand pretending to be Dracula. Position your one light underneath your subject’s chin and let the light highlight the eyebrows, the tip of the nose and across the cheekbones. The eye sockets will look dark and ominous – but this is intentional to the setup.

Using a harsh light source such as a torch will better define the edges of where the one light falls. Soft light may spread too much for this effect. This is a fun one light portrait setup to try with kids.

10. Overhead Lighting

Finally, think opposite to floor lighting for our last setup. Raise your light directly overhead to light your subject the other way. A light shining down from above can look heavenly and ethereal if your subject tilts their head upwards.

The neck and underside of the chin will be shrouded in shadow which can be flattering if you want to highlight the shape of the face. Use a diffused light to make it appear dreamy.

One Light Photography Tutorial Overhead Lighting

4 Types of Lighting Modifiers

Early we mentioned it is possible to modify some light sources to shape the output for different effects. Here’s a brief overview of 4 ways to modify an off-camera flash or strobe head for portrait photography.

Softbox – A large wrap-around ‘box’ that has a hole on one side for your light to fit through. The opposite side is translucent and the inside is reflective for the light to bounce around and pass through the front panel. It’s a quick and effective way to soften direct light.

Umbrella – This will be familiar if you’ve ever walked into a photography studio. Umbrellas can be used to pass the light through or reflect back into the room.

SnootA snoot is a conical tube that filters light to create a tight spotlight effect. Think about the opening title sequence of a James Bond movie looking through the barrel of a gun – that’s similar to the snoot lighting effect. 

Grid / Honeycomb Grid – Grids can be placed over a softbox to filter the light slightly (but with minimal effect from our experience. It’s designed to stop the light from spreading as wide after being diffused by the softbox. The smaller the pattern on the grid the stronger the effect will be.

One Light Photography Tutorial 1


Shoot Through Umbrella



Product Photography with One Light

Just to confirm you use some of the lighting patterns we’ve looked at in this one light photography tutorial outside of portraits. Silhouettes, floor lighting and overhead lighting, in particular, are used regularly in product and commercial photography.

Bottles, perfume, shoes, handbags all look great when used with dramatic one light setups. If you’ve not got anyone to call on to act as your model (and you don’t feel comfortable getting in front of the camera yourself) then find some items around the house and try out these one light setups. 

It’s a good chance to try out some DIY home photography projects.

Further Reading – Types of Light

If you want to understand some of the terminology covered in this one light photography tutorial further, we’ve created a mini glossary for you. 

There are 3 common qualities of light that will guide your natural light photos in terms of under which condition to shoot. They are hard, soft and reflected.

What is Hard Light?

Hard light appears most when the sun is unfiltered on a bright day with no clouds in the sky. 

Strong sunshine equals strong shadows. Hard light intensifies colours and makes everything appear a little crisper (as long as the shot is sharp). It can though make scenes look flat when used as a front-lit source.

Hard light is symbolised by a quick transition from light to shadow. Think about when you go outdoors on a bright summer’s day and the light is intense – that’s hard light.

What is Soft Light?

Soft light is the total opposite of hard light. You’ll need a cloudy day to see the effects of soft light when shooting outdoors. The clouds will diffuse the sunshine and spread it wider meaning it is less intense.

The transition from light to dark is much longer and this means you can demonstrate more shape in a subject. Portraits, for example, are much more flattering under soft light as it is most gentle to the skin.

What is Reflected Light?

When you get natural light that is bounced off of surfaces this is what we call reflected light. Light can be reflected off of walls, the ground, or any other surface.

Reflected light can create a soft glow as the light intensity is dramatically reduced and spread wider when bounced.

It’s worth noting that if you reflect light off a coloured surface then the colour transfer can occur i.e. bouncing light off a red wall means that your subject can end up with tones of red falling on it.

Tip – You could consider dappled light an alternative style of natural light. It appears when light is passing through an object (such as tree branches). Some light is absorbed, other areas make it through creating this patchy ‘dabbled’ look. 

It can be quite pretty when used accurately but sometimes, if overlooked, can leave bright areas in backgrounds distracting the eye or unwanted dark areas on the subject.

Join our Portrait Photography Class

If you would like to know more about taking portraits, then check out our portrait course. It’s the most comprehensive online photography course totally dedicated and focused on capturing photos of your friends, family, strangers, clients and even pets!

From newborns and toddlers right through to couples. We’ve prepared ideas for wedding photography too in this portrait photography class; we’ve considered all ages and situations to make sure it’s a one-stop-shop for learning portrait photography for beginners.

It’s more than just one light too! You’ll discover lighting setups for headshots and more. We’ll uncover all about the important camera settings, how to set up your studio, how to pose subjects and so much more!

Photography Classes 3

One Light Photography Tutorial Summary

There we go, all 10 complete. Which one did you like? Which one’s haven’t you seen before?

Let us know if they’ve helped you out a bit. See if you can put them to good use when you take your next portrait, or just try it on yourself and send us the results.

You’ll find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as usual. Just search for iPhotography and tag us in your shots.

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