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How to Use One Light Flash Photography for a Professional Look

Take a Time Out with Tanya, art director & graphic designer turned commercial photographer who really just wants a break from her three kids. Sign up for her weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

I got my first Canon Speedlite 430EX in 2007 as a Christmas gift from my husband. I had been teaching myself digital photography after making the switch from film and realized I needed to learn how to use artificial lighting for some applications. Unfortunately, that flash sat in my camera bag unused for over four years because I didn’t know how to use it. I basically consider those to be four wasted years because since I’ve learned to use flash, an entire photographic world opened up to me.

That original Canon 430EXII is almost 10 years old now and the primary light in my kit. I’ve never had a problem with it. I bought an identical flash second-hand and those two lights go with me on every shoot. Yes, I’ve used other strobes in-studio and on-location but I found them to be heavy, cumbersome and not necessary for the type of work I do. Yes, I have the Profoto B2 250 Air TTL Location Kit on my wish list (seriously, I dream about it at night) but the Speedlites work just fine in a variety of situations and elevate my photography to a professional level without having spent a fortune or having to lug around a huge, heavy kit. Here are a few ways you can use one light flash photography to boost a basic scene to a more professional look.

Bounce the Light

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I recently did a commercial session for a client in her home. Jolene Fisher is a nutrition and fitness coach and wanted “day-in-the-life” images for her business’ (No Bad Days) social media campaign. Her home had plenty of natural light coming in, but I wanted to add just a pop of fill light and did so by simply bouncing the light off her white vaulted ceilings. She was amazed by how professional the photos looked with that extra lighting. It elevated the quality of the photographs from snap-shot to more commercial images.

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We also shot at a local coffee shop and I used the same Speedlite with a MagMod MagBounce modifier attached. I had my assistant holding the flash on a monopod toward the window of the cafe and we bounced the light back onto the subjects, creating a nice soft light and also allowing distractions in the background to fall off into shadow.

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For these conceptual images for a Facebook Ad campaign for Karen Does My Hair, I set up sheets of white foam core board in a box-like shape around the items I was photographing (see photograph below, but I had an additional board on the left side). With my flash mounted on-camera I bounced the light off the wall of one board, which cast a nice soft light over the objects, leaving no harsh shadows. 

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The client loved them and  was pleased I was able to create these quickly on-location with no complicated, expensive set-up.

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For another shoot for Karen Does My Hair, I used the same single Speedlite bounced off a 45 degree angle vaulted ceiling (White vaulted ceilings are seriously my favorite!). There was some light coming into this room but it was a little overcast that day so adding that bit of fill flash really elevated the look of the images. For one thing, I didn’t have to crank up the ISO so the images are noise-free and crisp.

Modify the light

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This shoot for Rainmaker Creative had some challenging lighting issues. The conference room, where we spent about half the shoot, had overhead lights that cast an unflattering yellow hue. Also, the back part of their office where the staff worked was largely in shadow so we had to add some light to highlight the focal points and avoid using a high ISO.

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I had my assistant hold a Speedlight on a monopod with the Cowboy Studio Octagon Umbrella Softbox modifier for these shots. I love this modifier because it’s so affordable and folds up like an umbrella for easy transport, setup and take down. The only drawback to this modifier is that you have to take the diffuser off the front to access the flash, which can slow things down a bit.

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However, I’ve used the same Octagonal Umbrella Softbox for these executive head shots for ITProGuy.com, which we created on-location in a very small room. It was a rainy, overcast December day in Seattle, and I’m so glad I planned ahead and brought my lighting gear because there was very minimal natural light coming into that room and there’s no way we could have gone outside in the cold. I love how the light is soft but gives some dimension to the face. The soft box is placed at camera left at a 45 degree angle and then I had my assistant hold a reflector down below to create a touch of fill, and eliminate any shadows under the eyes.

Don’t Be Afraid of Flash

Now that you’ve seen a bunch of different ways I use one pocket strobe in my professional work, are you ready to start giving it a try? Don’t be afraid of flash. It doesn’t have to be expensive, heavy, or bulky to carry around. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend the SLR Lounge Lighting 101 workshop. This workshop is dedicated to showing you how to use one light on-camera. In Lighting 201 you learn how to take the light off the camera and utilize more than one at a time. Alternatively, you can become a Premium Member and watch both Lighting 101 and 201, plus all the other incredible SLR Lounge workshops instantly, whenever you want!

For more examples of using one light to create professional quality imagery, check out the following articles:

USING ONE LIGHT & AN UMBRELLA FOR FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY

TIPS ON POSING FULL FIGURED WOMEN USING ONLY ONE LIGHT | LINDSAY ADLER

CHANGING THE LOOK OF A PORTRAIT WITH ONE LIGHT IN DIFFERENT POSITIONS | JOEL GRIMES

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

Comments [16]

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  1. Guy Ivie

    Great to see such solid photos done with a single light. For 3 years, I’ve been carrying 2 Yongnuo speedlites on my annual trip to London, along with several modifiers and a couple of travel tripods to use as lightstands. For 3 years, I haven’t used them more than once per trip (this year, not at all!) because it’s too much trouble lugging all that all over town to various locations. Next year, 1 speedlite, a clamp mount, and 1 modifier!

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  2. Steve Duffey

    So were you shooting TTL or manual and if so were you using a light meter or just trial and error?

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I have a question about the care of flashes.
    I have a Sunpak 522 (a “potato masher”) that I bought back in the 80’s. for my Canon A-1. I don’t use the flash that often and I left the AA batteries in the flash for a long period and they leaked. Sometime in the past five years, the flash wouldn’t fire, so I sent it off for repair.
    I managed to recover a Canon 277T by use of baking soda and vinegar that had corroded battery terminals.

    Now, after use, I remove the batteries from the various flashes.

    My question is: Should I on a periodic basis, charge the flashes and fire the flashes to keep the capacitor in a good state?

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  4. claude laramée

    I can’t tell how many times a flash got me out of a difficult photo situation ! Thanks for sharing your experience !

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  5. Warren Surette

    Love the image “Karen Does My Hair”. Clever use of the speedlight, simple but effective!

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  6. Paul Wynn

    Yes it proves once again, that you don’t need lots of expensive gear to achieve great looking images, Thanks.

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  7. Alex Kartashov

    Thanks for the article. Would love to see more articles about single-light set ups instead of complex multi light multi trigger set ups.

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  8. David Hill

    Hey Tanya! Great article – thank you! For the shot of Jolene Fisher (Bounce light) do you generally just use bare bulb and no modifier to direct the light at the ceiling or do you use a grid to focus the light into one spot which perhaps controls it more? (or makes no difference!) Thanks in advance. David

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  9. Karen Borter

    Great examples and descriptions … I have 1 flash and triggers currently and am working on lighting and manipulating light for my desired results. I am anxious to delve into Lighting 101 and 102 and, in fact, blame SLR Lounge for recent (inexpensive) purchases of a diffuser (dedicated) and a 5 in 1 reflector LOL

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Karen, we are so so…not sorry ;-) That 5 in 1 is going to become like a comfort blanket you won’t want to do without. Have fun, and let us know if there’s anything further you’d like clarified or help with anything. Cheers

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    • Karen Borter

      Yeah … I bet ;) I have also acquired (from a friend on loan) 3 tricolor light units which I am going to be building V Flats and getting a backdrop frame for … yeah SLR Lounge has “enlightened” me on the subject of lighting (see what I did there ;) )

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I see it, saw it, liked it. V-flats are some of my favorite things – I shoot beauty and fashion so it goes with the territory. Check this out for a good instruction on building HQ V-flats.
      https://www.slrlounge.com/great-instruction-building-diy-v-flats/

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    • Karen Borter

      Thank you so much !!!

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    • Tanya Goodall Smith

      Those are great basic purchases that will serve you well.

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