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The One Light Portrait Challenge | Are You Overcomplicating Your Lighting Setup?

By Miguel Quiles on January 8th 2015

How many lights does it take to create a great, pro quality image? In my early career, my answer was “as many as I can get.” However, 2014 was the year this all changed.


Maybe some of you are like me. I would spend hours watching lighting tutorials, behind the scenes videos, and attending live workshops to learn the best way to light people in a studio environment. Often times, the instructors in these classes would use multiple lights, and while the results were inspiring, it was also a bit of a hurdle in my own mind. My immediate thought was “I can’t create an image like that unless I have 2 or 3 more strobes like they’re using,” which helped fuel my “Gear Acquisition Syndrome.” While I waited to save the money I needed to buy these additional lights, my work was often uninspired. My excuse was that I needed more lights to fully execute my vision. Then one day my photography mind was turned upside down.

I came across a number of gorgeous images on 500px and Flickr that were just stunning. I delved into the comments and EXIF details of these images and was shocked to read that many of them were all lit with just a single light. Surely, this was some type of wizardry, or maybe just a misprint. Either way, I was determined to take a step back and approach my work with a fresh set of eyes.

That day, I decided that for the next few months I would challenge myself and shoot all of my studio work with just a single light and modifier. I wanted to see all of the different ways I can shape a single light while keeping the style of images unique from one another. No matter the style of photography, from commercial portraiture, to headshots, to editorial, I was determined to find as many ways as possible to extract the most out of this simple approach.

Below is a set of images I photographed from March 2014 to January 2015, all with one light/modifier.


Tips & Takeaways

Committing to shooting with one light only for any extended period of time can be quite challenging if you’re not use to it. I was fortunate to have a variety of fantastic modifiers that made this journey fun and easy. My go-to modifier was the 5ft Octodome made by Photoflex. It was what I used for a majority of the images above.

When hard light was needed to execute a particular look, I chose my 22″ beauty dish. In each shoot, I would experiment placing these modifiers in different places in relation to my subject. If you hang your modifiers centered above your subject, the look will be totally different than if you place it at a 45 degree angle to the left or right. Set up some test shoots and try placing them in different areas and distances from your subject until you settle upon a style that you like, then try to replicate it often in your future photo shoots to increase your consistency and quality.

If you’re thinking that buying more lighting will automatically take your work to another level, I challenge you to take a step back and explore all of the ways you rock your next photo shoot with just one light and modifier!

Have you gone through a similar journey? If so I’d love to see some of your best one light images in the comments below.

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Miguel Quiles is a commercial wedding & portrait photographer based out of New Jersey. He’s been involved in the photography industry for over 15 years, starting off first as a salesman at a local camera store. Since that time, Miguel has been refining his skills and pushing the limits of his creative abilities through the medium of photography.

As a self-taught photographer, Miguel hopes to share his experience and knowledge with new and upcoming photographers who wish to take their work to the next level.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Gurmit Saini

    Great article Miguel and I am just stepping into learning one light setups and this is just brilliant. thank and best wishes.

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  2. Stephen Velasquez

    I have done a couple one light setups and they are so fun, quick and easy to do with great impact.

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  4. Rafael Steffen

    What a great article! Congratulations on giving us great projects to work on!

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  5. Andrew Murdock

    It’s a similar thought process I went through, from often too complicated light setups to starting with one and only adding more if I needed to and often digging the one light results (even if those weren’t my client’s favorites). Challenge accepted and got my studio manager to sit his bum down on the couch after shoots on Wednesday :-

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  6. Jamie Solorio

    Hi there! Great work! May I ask…how did you get that reflection in the last image? Super cool effect, I would love love LOVE to try it!

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  7. Jorge Olmos

    Awesome work! I absolutely love, love, love the look of your second and fifth photograph, so I have to ask: what lens and backdrop did you use?

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  8. Jorge Elvir

    Challenge accepted! This will be a great exercise indeed, plus I can’t afford a second light at the moment so a speedlite w/soft box and a reflector will have to do.

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  9. Thorsten Ott

    The one-light setup is simply classic and produces timeless results. Probably 95% of my fashion and portrait images are done with a single light setup…and a reflector.

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  10. John Decker

    One light means less junk to haul around too! Love the look of one light. Thanks for the pointers.

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  11. Chad Andreo-Photo

    If possible, a few descriptions of your lighting setup next to the images would be very informative.

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  12. David Hall

    Just about everything on my site is one light outdoor (environmental) photography. Mixing ambient with my single light source.

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  13. James Moxley

    Great article, I totally agree, I’ve been shooting with only one light as we shoot on location without assistants. The following image was shot with a shoot through umbrella and a white reflector held under the models chin.

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    • Miguel Quiles

      Thanks for reading! Sometimes you end up learning the one light game out of necessity. Not having an assistant definitely gives you the motivation to make the most of what you have. Just looked at your shot and it looks great. Keep up the great work!

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  14. Christopher Fuller

    Challenge accepted! Great work Miguel!

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  15. Greg Silver

    Sure helps to have some great looking models – fantastic pics!

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  16. Vince Arredondo

    Hi! Did you use any reflector? Looking at some of the images I would say you did, but just want to be sure.
    Beautiful work. You should share your post-process as well.

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    • Miguel Quiles

      Thanks Vince! I did use either a reflector, v-flat, or foamboards in many of these images, but still only one strobe. There is definitely a lot that can be done even beyond what I accomplished. I am planning to put together some content around post-processing in the near future. Stay tuned!

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  17. Stephen Velasquez

    Wow, I’ll take this challenge just to rebuild my lighting technique. Will using a reflector counts as another light source? I can’t believe he shot that high-key with one light.

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    • Miguel Quiles

      Use as many reflectors as possible, but just one strobe/speedlite. Do it for a few months and see what it does to your work overall. The high key shot was a 5ft Photoflex Octodome centered above the subject. I didn’t think it would turn out the way it did which is why doing this type of exercise is so beneficial!

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    • Aaron Cheney

      I will definitely be taking this challenge. I am afraid of using speed lights because they are unknown to me but they are something I definitely want to master. Thank you for sharing this!

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  18. Eric Sharpe

    Great images! You can do a lot with 1 light. I believe all but 1 of the images in my slrlounge gallery were shot with just 1 light.

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    • Miguel Quiles

      Thank you! It really is amazing all that can be done with just 1 light. I’ll definitely check out your work.

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