Tips for Building a One-Light Portrait Kit

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The creative photographer can produce a seemingly endless range of images using just one light source. This article is designed to help beginners choose a one-light kit perfect for creating portraits.

Why One Light?

I completely understand why multi-light “studio in a box” kits are tempting to beginner and budget-conscience photographers. Why spend hundreds of dollars on one light when you can get three lights complete with modifiers and stands for the same price? The answer is twofold: quality and necessity. While I am all for finding budget-friendly ways to improve my photos, lights are right next to cameras and lenses as items for which I am unwilling to cut corners.

Durability and reliability are two of the most important qualities of any light. While budget kits may offer more in terms of quantity, they will never match the quality or feature set of a well-constructed light. This is true of modifiers, as well. If you have ever wrestled with a cheap softbox in front of a client, you know the value of spending a little extra for a well-built product.

The second reason to start with a one-light kit is simple: the best way to learn how to light portraits is one light at a time. While it may seem appealing and “professional” to start with a multi-light setup out of the gate, in many cases, you can achieve the shot you need with one light and a well-placed bounce. Learn how to use one light effectively. As your lighting skills evolve, you will know exactly what kind of light you need to take your portraits to the next level rather than relying on what a manufacturer says you need.

What Kind of Light?

First, you need to figure out what kind of light best suits your practice. What kind of portraits do you plan on taking? Event, studio, and location shoots all have slightly different requirements for their main light source. Don’t worry, though; there is enough overlap to find a light that can work for all three scenarios.

Best 1-Light Solution for Event and Street Photographers

If you are covering events or taking documentary-style portraits on the fly, a simple, on-camera flash may be the best place to start. If you foresee yourself in situations where you must work quickly, choose one with TTL capabilities. This will allow your camera and flash to work together to create a usable exposure when you don’t have time to do so yourself. While in the past, on-camera flashes had to be attached to your camera’s hot shoe or else connected via a cable, many new models incorporate wireless communication so you can trigger your light remotely. There is also a variety of modifiers available to shape light however you want.

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT
Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

If you already have an on-camera flash and are ready to step up to something more powerful, consider a battery-powered strobe. A dedicated strobe will be capable of producing considerably more light than an on-camera flash, boast faster recycle times, and be compatible with an even greater range of modifiers. More on strobes below.

Godox AD400Pro Witstro All-In-One Outdoor Flash
Godox AD400Pro Witstro All-In-One Outdoor Flash

Best 1-Light Solution for Studio and Location Photographers

While you can use an on-camera flash to light a studio or location, these scenarios often benefit more from the power and features available from a strobe. Another bonus most strobes offer that is less common with smaller flashes is the inclusion of a modeling light. This can be used to preview the effect of your lighting setup or even provide a boost of light for video recording in a pinch.

Godox MS300 Monolight
Godox MS300 Monolight

Most strobes also have mounts designed for light stands so you can easily set up your light and modifier wherever needed and communicate with your light wirelessly. If you expect to be creating portraits of your subjects moving, another feature to be aware of is high-speed sync (HSS), which will allow you to shoot at much faster shutter speeds than otherwise possible.

Best 1-Light Solution for Portrait Photographers Who Also Shoot Video

The rise of the “content creator” has consequently eroded the line once separating photo and video. Many photographers find themselves being asked to supplement their photographs with video, whether that means behind-the-scenes or original content. Luckily, this push has been accompanied by significant improvements in the world of continuous lighting—especially LED lights.

While you will be hard pressed to find an LED that would match the intensity of a strobe at full power, there are plenty of options that will provide ample light for most portrait scenarios. A monolight-style LED will provide a concentrated light source like you would get from a strobe. These types of LEDs are also compatible with the same types of modifiers as are available for strobes, so you can shape light in a similar manner. Beyond the benefits of being able to supplement your portraits with video, bi-color LEDs also allow you to change the color temperature of your light for creative applications without needing gels.

Aputure Light Storm C300d Mark II LED Light Kit with V-Mount Battery Plate
Aputure Light Storm C300d Mark II LED Light Kit with V-Mount Battery Plate

The Best Accessories for Your 1-Light Portrait Kit

Now that you have a light picked out, don’t forget about modifiers. If you are relying on one light source for your images, it is especially important that you make that source as flattering as possible.

Add Fill with a Reflector

Just because you are working with one light doesn’t mean that your subject has to be illuminated from only one direction. Enter the Swiss Army knife of studios: the reflector. Many a well-placed reflector has eliminated the need for an additional light on a shoot. The key is to align your reflector with your light source and bounce it where you need it in your shot to provide fill. Learn all about reflectors in this article.

Impact 5-In-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Kit
Impact 5-In-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Kit

On-Camera Flash Accessories

If you are using an on-camera flash, a good first accessory is a dome diffuser. These soften the output of flashes by providing a layer of diffusion—usually in the form of a translucent plastic—and dispersing light in multiple directions. Another way to soften and expand the coverage of a flash is with a bounce card. While index cards can be common sights taped onto flashes for exactly this purpose, you may want something a little more durable or larger. Luckily, there is a variety of options available ranging from compact flip-up designs to multi-sided white/silver attachments.

Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible with Speed Mount
Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible with Speed Mount

On the other hand, if you are looking to maximize the effect of your flash, a honeycomb grid will position your light precisely where you direct it. Gels can also be placed over your flash to color-match ambient light or provide creative effects.

Profoto A1 Grid Kit
Profoto A1 Grid Kit

If your flash can be triggered off-camera, you can adapt most light modifiers designed for strobes to work with flashes, as well. Cold-shoe adapters can be used with umbrellas and speed-ring adapters can be used for soft boxes. More on the effect of these adapters below.

Impact Deluxe Umbrella Mount with Adjustable Shoe
Impact Deluxe Umbrella Mount with Adjustable Shoe

Strobe and Continuous Light Accessories

Two of the most useful light modifiers available for off-camera lights are the umbrella and the softbox. The one big advantage of the umbrella is that it assembles and collapses quickly and can be transported with ease. There are many types of umbrellas with a variety of reflective surfaces to choose from. As versatile as they are simple, umbrellas can be used to amplify the effect of your light, or soften it, depending on the type you choose.

Impact 7' Improved Parabolic Umbrella
Impact 7' Improved Parabolic Umbrella

Softboxes come in a range of sizes and shapes from hand-holdable designs to massive wall-sized light banks. As their name implies, softboxes boast the ability to transform otherwise harsh sources into a flattering light. Generally speaking, larger is better when selecting a softbox because it will provide the most diffused light. Many models also include interior and exterior diffusion to provide added effect. There are many shapes to choose from, depending on your subject. Octagonal and parabolic shapes are popular for portraiture because they produce pleasing catchlights. Strip boxes are commonly used for full body images or larger subjects. When choosing a softbox, don’t forget to also pick up a speed ring fitted to your light.

Profoto RFi Speed Ring for Profoto Flash Heads
Profoto RFi Speed Ring for Profoto Flash Heads

Depending on what you are creating, you may want to explore more specialized modifiers such as beauty dishes for portraits, snoots or barndoors for directed light, or gobos for creating patterns. Finally, flags and scrims can be mounted on a light stand to serve as an additional in-between when extra diffusion is needed.

Impact Folding Beauty Dish
Impact Folding Beauty Dish

Have you used a one-light kit for portraits? Share your advice in the Comments section, below!

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