Photography Lighting Basics #3 : One Light Photography



Welcome to part 3 of the lighting basics series : One Light Photography. In this guide, we will dive into the practical tips that we missed in the previous session – How to use one light to rule them all.



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Section A
Flash Tips

Section B
Off Camera

Section C
Constant Light

What Next?




Slap the flash on, turn it to auto, point it forward and fire away. That is probably the instinct of most beginners, and that is one way to get started… Except that for most of the time, you won’t get good results with this kind of setting. So how do we get better results? Here is how I do my on-camera flash.



By this, I mean to always start a shot by framing the background, and do the camera settings without considering the flash. Why does it make sense to do this? Ever wonder why beginners always end up with a dark background and sheet white portrait like this –

Photo by ptksgc. My apologies for using Photoshop to make a horrible example for a failed flash shot… But I must make my point known.

That is because of a direct bare flash hit, and the settings on the camera is wrong. Which is why my usual practice is to :

  • Switch to matrix metering or evaluative metering mode.
  • Meter the background, and use that as a rough estimation for the camera’s exposure settings.
  • Switch on the flash, and attach a diffuser.
  • Take a test shot with TTL.
  • Adjust the flash head, exposure and/or compensation accordingly if required.

That said, if the background is not a concern (you want the background to be totally black or white), you can ignore this step of metering.



By now, you should know that a direct bare flash is bad for portraits (I call this the nuclear flash). Remember the Square Inverse Law from the first lesson? A small intense flash produces harsh light, so all you need to do, is to increase the surface area and/or diffuse the light. The easiest way to soften a flash light, is to use the diffuser captuppleware, or 9 inch mini softbox.



Too broke to even buy a cap? Forgot to bring that softbox out? Here are many cheap ways to soften the flash.

  • Wrap the flash in tissue, or piece of white paper.
  • Wrap the flash in a white balloon, frosted white plastic bag… or white sock.
  • Use a white T-Shirt
  • Whatever you can find!



Apart from softening the flash, light has a very interesting property – it bounces off surfaces. If you find yourself in trouble with an overly intense flash, you can try to bounce the light off the walls and ceiling. It has the same effect of increasing the area, and softening the light… Just make sure that the wall does not have funky colors.

Alternatively, you can try bouncing the flash off a reflector. You might need more hands and people to help you though.



The next common pitfall among beginners, and that is, not considering the environmental lights. Yes, it might be called “one light photography”, but you can’t turn off the sun and there are plenty of city lights all around.

Most of the time, these surrounding lights are beyond your control. So you will have to consider how to use these environmental lights. Do you want to face your subject towards or away from the sun? How do you want to deal with the street lamps? Place your subject under a strong street light, or place the street lights behind the subject?



The next consideration you have to make, is the color and temperature of the environmental lights. For example, simply put, you probably not want your subject to be lit white while the sunset is orange.

This is where these cheap transparent color papers that we call color gels are a worthy investment. Adds drama to your photos, and good for balancing the color of the flash with the surrounding.

There is something called “color gel” in photography, and these cheap transparent color paper can really do some magic.



Flash is not meant to be a solution for everything. If you are shooting animals and babies, avoid firing a flash. You will never know how animals react to a bright flash, they might run or they might attack. Babies are more sensitive to bright lights, you don’t want to hurt them with a direct flash-in-the-eye.




Congratulations on coming to this stage. If you just practice some of the above on-camera flash tips, you will be a few steps ahead of the nuclear flash practitioners. But now, let’s move on to something even more advanced – 1 light, off-camera flash.



Just-in-case, for some people who have forgotten or not read my previous post. There are 2 ways to do off-camera flash.

Master-slave setup : Master flash triggers the slave.
Wireless trigger setup : A transmitter is attached to the camera, and you can fire multiple flashes with corresponding receivers.



Thus I have recommended to use the Godox X1 wireless triggers [Nikon | Canon | Sony], since wireless are much more reliable than the master-slave setup. But in addition to that, off-camera lighting offers an opportunity for even better options – Without having to burn a hole in your wallet, that is. Just what do we need?

[Light Stand]
To hold the flash. Doh.
[Light Stand Bracket]
This will allow you to swivel the flash, and put an umbrella on.
[Umbrella Softbox]
Remember the mini softbox? This is many times the size of that. There are many shapes and sizes to the softbox – Octagon, square and rectangle. Each has it own use, but I will recommend starting with 80cm octagon. Which is common and portable.



When it comes to off-camera flash, some beginners panic and not know what to do. How does it work? Where do you place the light? What settings do you use? Yes it’s different, but not really difficult.

  • Mount the flash onto the receiver, mount the transmitter onto the camera.
  • Turn on the camera and flash. 😐
  • Set the channel on the receiver (I shall not go into details here, since everyone has a different receiver).
  • Set the channel on the transmitter, so that it can trigger the flash.

Yep. That is actually about it. You now have a flash that works off-camera.



Well, before the “experts” start flaming, I must make a disclaimer first that using a soft box does not always make better photos. For example, if you want some dramatic shots, you will want to consider using a snoot instead.  If you want a nice back / rim light, use a bare flash without diffusers.

So what are soft boxes good for? Increasing the area of the light, and soften the light. You will find that soft boxes are very commonly used in portrait photography, and sometimes product photography. Setting up the umbrella soft box is actually pretty easy, and you should be able to figure out in 5 minutes… but here goes.



The beauty, and point of using off-camera flash, is the ability to put it at different positions. Not going to have too much “spoilers” on this one, as you will have to try it to know it. Just place the flash at different positions, and you will be surprised to see how much your photo can change with just the position of the light.

Front lighting
Side lighting
Back lighting

P.S. I know that these are not one light setup, but yep, just know that there are 3 common light placements – Front, side and back.



Now that you put a flash in a box, do you have to use manual flash power? No. TTL still works as usual… But to what extend, it will really depend on many factors such as the environment and flash system itself. Thus, this is where I will recommend to start playing around with manual flash power.

  • Use in-camera metering to determine a rough estimation for the exposure settings.
  • Position your subject and flash.
  • Take a test shot.
  • Review and adjust power / exposure settings.

Now, that is not much of a difference from the usual on-camera flash, except that you will need to factor in the position of the flash. So go try it out, manual or TTL. It’s not that difficult once you catch the gist of it.



For you guys who do not have a stomach for flash photography, we thankfully live in a more advanced age. Back in those days, photographers who do not want to use flash have to make their own lighting rig. Complete with light bulbs, and car batteries. Today, we have plenty of gadgets that you can buy online.



Pretty sure many people have already heard of this. I will recommend a YongNuo YN-300 Pro LED panel – Which are decently good enough. While LED panels are not as powerful as good flash units, the do produce some nice soft lights, without the need of a softbox.



Don’t like artificial lights? Then by now, you should already know that you are using the sun as the main light most of the time. Problem is, we cannot move the sun. Thankfully, we can move the subject, and we can use a simple reflector to put some of those sunlight back to the subject.



We have come to the end of yet another long tutorial. At this stage, reading and theory is no longer good enough. To truly understand how lighting works, you will have to do it for yourself. So go, and test it out for yourself before moving onto the next session with multiple lights.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. See you in the next one.


Previous Lesson : Flash Photography Basics Next Lesson : Studio Lighting


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