Shooting studio portraits with just one light is maybe the best way to start. Most of my setups begins with getting the main light right, and after that, I continue building up the idea I have with additional lights and reflectors etc.
Lighting setup diagram for one-light portrait
Click on image above for more posts with studio lighting setups & diagrams
The easiest portrait setup
If you want to create a setup for portraits that is both flexible and easy to use, without having to adjust it for people of different height, start by placing a large light source on one side. Add a reflector on the other side, and you have a good portrait setup.
This photo was taken on an assignment when I was asked to take some portraits of a Swedish stand-up comedian for his portfolio. As I was setting the lights, I took a test photo with just the main light on. Mostly, I use two or three lights (sometimes four) in my portraits, but looking at this picture, I think I will try to do it really simple more often.
Placement of the light
In this example, I placed the big Profoto softbox Octa 5′ about one meter to the side of my model, maybe a bit closer. As you can see in the setup diagram, the center of the softbox is in front the model.
I chose this position so some of the light from the flash would also hit the shadow side of the face, and also give me a catchlight in both eyes. Without that, the model would maybe have looked a bit sinister, and that was not my intention.
The flash head was about 1.8 meters from the ground on a stand, which is a little bit above eye-level for this model. If I would have placed it lower, I wouldn’t have gotten the shadow under his nose and chin, which I think most portraits benefit from if you want to create a sense of dimension.
Add reflector for fill
Camera right, I placed a white reflector to lighten the shadows a little bit. In the same position as the light, but on the other side of the model. It was just a big piece of thick white paper, but you can of course use anything that reflects light.
Without the reflector, the shadow side of the model would have been dark, almost black. Maybe a little bit of light would reflect from the white wall, but not much. And that would also have created a much darker portrait than I had planned.
Distance to background
I use a seamless white paper background for most of my portraits in the small studio I have. The distance was 2 meters between the model and the background, so the white background recieved enough light to look medium grey.
Place the model and light closer, and the background will have a lighter grey tone, and vice versa. If I wanted, I could have put something between the light and the background to create a gradient (or a pattern).
The photo was developed in Nikon Capture NX2 without any major modifications, but as the light on the background was a bit uneven, I adjusted that in Photoshop to lighten the right side of the background a little.
The falloff on the left side is as it was, so that is only created by how the light goes from the softbox to the background.
Just a start
As I said earlier, this was just a test photo taken before I had added background lights and rim lights, but it would be a simple setup to modify for different purposes. Just adjust the placement of the model or light, and it would look completely different.
If I would have wanted a background that was brighter on one side, I could have moved the model and light closer to it. If I only wanted a darker background, just do the opposite.
Add another light
The final portraits will be the subject of another post here, what I did was to add a light from behind to act as a combined rim light and hair light. Or I could have pointed it at the background, and with just a snoot or something to narrow the beam, created a much more dynamic portrait.
What I really like with this setup is that you get a big light that makes the face interesting without making it so complicated. The shadows are in the right places (I think) to define the facial features, but not too much.
I guess I could have used a smaller light source, such as an umbrella or a smaller softbox, but then it would not have been this flexible and forgiving. But, then I could use a diffusor between the model and the light to make it bigger. Will try that sometime.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment.