Portrait lighting with a single light has become increasingly popular over the last few years, and it is easy to see why. Digital photography is popular and there are loads of people out there who don’t want to invest in a large amount of portrait lighting equipment, can’t afford to invest in a large amount of portrait lighting equipment and don’t have the room to store a large amount of lighting equipment. Despite this, these people still want to be able to capture awesome flash portraits, and a single light will achieve this. There are loads of different lighting effects possible using single light set ups from low key effects, high key effects and everything in between.
Portrait lighting with a single light – Continuous or flash/strobe light?
know there are many photographers out there using continuous lights (i.e. those that are either off or on) for taking portraits however I am not one of them. Continuous lights are easier to work with, you can of course immediately see where the hot spots are, where the shadows are, whether the area you want lit is actually lit, where more light is needed, where less light is needed etc. and you can do something about it before pressing the shutter button and taking the photos, but continuous lights do have their disadvantages.
Continuous lights burn hot, and whilst there are “so called” cool continuous lights available to buy these still get warm quickly. Having a model under hot lights is likely to make them red faced and flushed, which is neither flattering nor a good look. Another problem with continuous lighting is that it often “melts” makeup and can create some nasty looking streaks and the like. Hot continuous lights not only affects makeup but all cosmetic products including creams, lotions and moisturisers.
In my opinion, continuous lighting and portrait photography don’t mix, and I would never recommend or suggest using a continuous lamps to anyone wanting to explore portrait lighting with a single light.
The best single light set up (and multiple light setup for that matter) for portrait photography is to use a speed light or strobe. The learning curve in portrait lighting using strobes and speed lights is steeper and it will take time, practice and effort (and lots of each) but the end result is way better, and it is time well spent. If you want to take some decent portrait shots and use the popular portrait lighting with a single light technique you must learn how to use a speed light or strobe correctly.
Portrait lighting with a single light – Speed light or strobe?
Okay we have discovered that a strobe or speed light provides the best portrait lighting with a single light solution, but which is best? The answer to this depends entirely on where you shoot.
Given the choice I would opt for a strobe light every time. Strobes are bigger, more powerful and have more adjustment increments allowing you to have total control over the light. Many photographers argue strobes are too powerful for their needs, however it is better to have too much power and dial it right down than have just enough power and max your light. A strobe is not too powerful at all, just reduce the power right down.
All things being equal strobes are the best portrait lighting solution but their use is very limited. Strobes are big, heavy and require mains power. In addition to this strobes require setting up, which can take a lot of time. Because of this strobes are best in studio situations where they can be set up and the strobe to subject distance remains constant throughout the shoot.
If you have a studio but space is too tight to leave the strobe lighting permanently set up a strobe may not be the best solution for you, unless you don’t mind setting it up, setting the flash exposure and then packing everything away after the shoot that is. If all of this seems like a bit of a faff (which it is!) speed lights may be the best solution. Speed lights are smaller, don’t require a mains power supply and also have ETTL technology, which speeds up the setting up process no end.
If you shoot on location speed lights are the best solution because they are small, light and you can gang three of them together (with the right equipment of course) to create a portrait lighting with a single light set up that is powerful and will help you light the subject how you want and capture the types of photos you want to take. Even though modern day speed lights are powerful some photographers still want more power in a single light that is just as useful and versatile.
There are portrait lights that have the same characteristics and features as a speed light (i.e. versatile, manual modes, ETTL modes, HSS modes etc.) but have the same power as a studio strobe. These lights are bigger than speed lights, however they are still pretty portable and they don’t require mains power supply to run so you can use them on location shoots. These lights aren’t cheap but they are full of technology and I guarantee they are worth every penny and will improve your portraits no end.
Portrait lighting with a single light – Manual or ETTL flash?
Manual flash does provide the ultimate control and leaves nothing to chance but, despite what the flash portrait photography books say and what flash tutorials would have you believe, it is not always the best technique.
Manual flash is perfect for the studio and those situations where you have the models stand in one positions, position the lights and take time setting the flash power and then simply press the shutter button and take the photos. As long as the flash to model distance remains constant and doesn’t change you shouldn’t have too many issues setting the flash manually. You can use ETTL flash in studio portrait shoots if you want, but setting the flash manually will result in consistent exposures time and time again with no need to adjust the settings.
In situations when the flash to model distance changes manual flash is not the way to go. You may strike it lucky and bag a few well exposed portraits but I guarantee you will miss far more than you hit. When the flash to model distance regularly changes ETTL flash is the way to go. Modern day ETTL flash lights are exceptionally good however there are times when the camera will get the flash exposure totally wrong. It is important you can identify these situations and also know how to deal with them, i.e. know what flash exposure compensation you need to apply (either positive or negative), know when to apply each type and also know how much to apply.
As a rule of thumb I use ETTL in situations when the flash to model distance frequently changes, such as taking portraits at events, parties and social gatherings. I use manual flash when I have an opportunity to set everything up and it isn’t going to change.
Portrait lighting with a single light – Modify the light or bounce it?
The light from a speed light or strobe is harsh, and unless we specifically want harsh lighting and the “rabbit in the headlights” look we need to soften the light. There are two ways in which to soften the light, which includes using some kind of light modifier (shoot through brollies, soft box, translucent scrim etc.) or bounce the light off a large surface area and on to the model.
The decision on whether to use a light modifier or bounce the light depends on the situation, and the look you’re trying to create but you do need to be comfortable with both if you want to make sure you have every situation covered.
If I am taking corporate headshots or standard head and shoulder portraits I will use even lighting and will bounce the flash whenever possible, however there are times when it simply isn’t possible to bounce the flash off something (such as shooting in large rooms with high ceilings, shooting in rooms with dark walls/ceilings or shooting outdoors) unless you have an assistant to hold a large reflector of course, and there is no choice but to use a light modifier.
If I am shooting “edgy” portraits I will get a little more creative with the light and use more extreme lighting ratios, and in these instances I will use a light modifier/barn doors/snoots to get the lighting effects I am after.
My portrait photography lights - Godox Ving
There was a time when I used to use a Canon 600EX but due to an unforeseen moment of madness I ended up breaking the speed light beyond reapair. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time since I needed a speed light for a planned shoot, and having little money (unfortunately the mortgage and the monthly bills have to be paid) I couldn’t afford another 600EX as a replacement. Desperately needing a speed light and little money meant one thing – buy a budget speed light.
After a bit of searching around I narrowed it down to two speed lights, the Godox Ving and the Yongnuo YN565 (I needed a speed light with ETTL). The two speed lights appeared to be pretty much the same, and the only reason I chose the Godox Ving was because it had free delivery. The fact I chose a speed light based on the delivery cost (or lack of it in this case) goes to show how tight money was at that time.
I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from the Godox Ving, after all it was a fraction of the cost of the Canon 600EX and so long as it could get me through the shoot that’s all I was concerned about, so when the Ving arrived I was surprised. Out of the box it felt pretty weighty, sturdy and well built. The Ving isn’t as tough and durable as the 600EX but given it is less than a third of the price, you can’t really expect it to be.
The Godox Ving is a basic flash that is user friendly and intuitive but has everything you need including full manual mode, ETTL mode and HSS mode, and with a GN of 58m it is pretty powerful, and almost the same spec as the 600EX. The Godox Ving is powered by a single cell battery which holds enough charge for over 500 full power pops, which is damn impressive, and since there is only one battery I don’t have several AA batteries laying around that need charging.
Overall the Godox Ving is an awesome speed light and I was so impressed with it I bought three more (for a ganged 3 speed light setup for a bit more power when I needed it) and they cost less than a single Canon 600EX. I have to admit that I was a total brand snob before I was “forced” in to buying the Godox Ving, however I have learned the error of my ways and now know there is no need to drop a lot of money on a Canon branded speed light. At the end of the day the speed light only provides a little bit of extra light when needed and doesn’t directly impact the image quality of the photos. As long as the flash fires at the right time, i.e. when the shutter button is pressed, that’s the main thing.
If you are on the hunt for a new speed light I highly recommend the Godox Ving, and it is available in Nikon fit as well as Canon fit. There really is no need to dig deep and spend out on the Canon (or Nikon) branded speed light when the Godox Ving does the same job, and whilst the build quality may not be up there with the Canon (and Nikon) speed lights the Godox Ving is a sturdy unit that will provide years of trouble free service, provided you treat it with a little respect and don’t abuse it too much.
The Godox Ving speed lights are top value for money, and even now, I am stunned how Godox can make a speed light full of technology and sell it for such little money.
Surely they can’t make much of a profit on it? Or is it that the other major players in the world of speed lights and flash guns have been ripping off photographers for years and making super profits? A bit of food for thought there……..
My portrait photography lights - Godox Witstro AD600
I reached the point in my portrait photography when I wanted a single battery powered light I could take on location that had a little more power than the Godox Ving speed lights I was using. In order to get more power I used to gang three of the speed lights together, and whilst this solution worked, having to keep setting up the rig, dismantling it, setting it up again, dismantling it again…etc. became tiresome.
I decided that rather than take the three speed lights, three Yongnuo 622 flash triggers (plus the transmitter for the camera), the bracket to mount the speed lights etc. a single light would be the perfect option.
Following on from the success of my Godox Ving speed lights I thought I would look to Godox to see what they had to offer. I was pretty confident that any portable strobe from Godox was going to be good quality, do exactly what it says on the tin, be competitively priced and top value for money. When I saw the Godox AD600B I had no hesitation in ordering one.
Because of what I shoot (a lot of events, parties and social gatherings) and the way I shoot (I like to be mobile) I needed a strobe with ETTL. I am more than capable of using flash in manual mode, but there are times when doing so is a real faff and ETTL is a better method, so ETTL is essential for me.
As I expected the build quality is very good but it’s not bomb proof, but then given the price this should come as no surprise. The build quality of the AD600 is plenty good enough for a lot of use, and if you look after it you should have several years of trouble free photo shoots with it.
One of the best things about the Godox AD600 is the battery pack that clips neatly to the back of the strobe light itself. Okay, this may make the strobe a little heavier than other strobes but there is no external battery pack to worry about, no power cables to get in the way and it is much easier to carry around since it is a single item as opposed to many smaller items.
The Witstro AD600 has been a real game changer for me, and I have to say that it has been one of the best pieces of photography equipment I have bought for a long time. If you are considering buying a high powered portable light forget about the Interfit and Profoto models and buy the Godox instead. I guarantee you won’t regret it and you’ll save yourself a load of money (to buy a light modifier or two?) in the process.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.