When you take the time to travel to a location for a shoot, it makes sense to use the location to the fullest. With a few simple lighting setups, you can craft epic portraits that showcase both your subjects and the scene. To demonstrate what we’re talking about, we headed out to scenic Joshua Tree, California, with a couple of former clients and a few essential, and highly portable, pieces of gear. In this tutorial, we’ll work through three simple one-light setups for capturing epic portraits when you’re on-location.

Video: 3 Simple One-Light Setups for Epic Portraits

Gear Checklist

profoto gear for one-light setups for epic portraits

Here’s a quick overview of the gear used for all of the one-light setups covered in this tutorial.

Like always, focus first on the technique and use whatever gear you have available.

C.A.M.P. Framework

In case you’re unfamiliar with the C.A.M.P. Framework (Composition, Ambient Exposure, Modify or Add Light, Pose and Photograph the Subjects), we use it throughout this tutorial. Simply put, the Framework helps to set up each shot with intention, from the composition to the lighting and posing, and it makes it easier to consistently capture better photos. You can learn about the Framework in more detail here.

Okay. Let’s get started.

Epic Light Setup #1: The Cactus Garden

scene 1 shot

For the first scene, we’re going to set up in a beautiful cactus garden. The landscape offers layers of elements from the cacti in the foreground on through to the mountain range in the backdrop. Scenes like this work especially well with a telephoto lens to compress the scene and help pull the detail (essentially, the background) forward.

In this particular scene, we have the sun high in the sky, which really makes this a two-light setup. We will face our subjects’ backs to the sun and give the scene a nice backlit look. The sun will provide a nice edge light for the subjects’ hair, clothes, and so on. Placing the subjects in front of the mountain range will further highlight the edge lighting from the sun. If we were to place the subjects in front of the cacti, we wouldn’t get the same results.


wide angle and tight angle for one-light setup for epic portratis

From here, we can start by dialing in our composition. After taking a couple of test shots, we can determine how to frame the image for both a tighter crop and a wider angle.

Ambient Exposure

You can go with a natural light look for this scene, but adding a light will allow us to add a bit of drama to the image. Remember, these are epic portraits! That said, we can set the intention of our shot with the ambient exposure setting. The darker we go, the more dramatic the shots.

ambient exposure for scene 1

By the way, if you have a camera with global shutter, then great, because you don’t have to use high speed sync. This means you’ll get more power out of your light as well.

Modify or Add Light

bts of lighting setup

Now, we can add a light and modify it to suit our needs. For this shot, we’re going to bring an off-camera flash in a softbox really close to our subjects, just off to the side at a 45-degree angle. We used to have to take a plate shot to make it easier to edit out the flash if it appears in the image. However, editing software now offers so many tools that can easily remove the flash, that creating a composite is not (always) necessary.

Pose and Photograph

With everything else ready to go, all that is left is to direct your subjects into a pose and capture the shot. Because you’ve spent time setting everything up, don’t just settle on one shot. Try different angles and direct your subjects to vary their pose and expressions to yield more usable images from the session.

Here are the final shots (medium and wide angle):

final shot 1 for one-light setups for epic portraits
Settings: 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 50 | Flash Power: 10 (Full Power)
final shot 2 for one-light setups for epic portraits
Settings: 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 50 | Flash Power: 10 (Full Power)

Bonus Tip: If you have a plethora of foreground elements to use, as we do in this scene, experiment with different angles and use the foreground elements for different effects.

pye next to the trees

For example, in this scene, we simply stepped closer to the cactus in the foreground, adjusted our aperture to f/11 to capture more detail, and then used the cactus as a shoot-through object to create the following image:

shoot through
Settings: 1/200, f/11, ISO 100 | Flash Power: 10 (Full Power)

The wide depth of field at f/11 allows us to recognize the object in the foreground, which we’re using to create a sort of window or frame into the scene

Epic One-Light Setups, #2: The Rock Face

scene 2 landscap

For the next scene, we’ve set ourselves up in front of an amazing rock face. We can use this rock to bring the sun in and out of the frame with slight adjustments to our camera position. This gives us more control over how much sun flare, if any, that we add to the image.

Ambient Exposure

ambient exposure for one-light setups for epic portraits

With the composition sort of determined by the rock feature, using the sun as an edge light and flare effect, we can move into setting our ambient exposure, which also sets our intention. To keep the images “epic,” leaning more on the dramatic side, we’ll lower our exposure a bit (see above).

Modify and/or Add Light

bts for scene 2 of one-light setups for epic portraits

For this shot, we’re going to position the added light source to create a butterfly pattern on our subjects. To do this, simply place the light over your subjects. With the light placed here, it gives us the sense of having a little heavenly light that is lighting our subjects against a darker background.

As we mentioned earlier, it’s now quite easy to remove the light and lighting assistant in post. Don’t be afraid of leaving that light in and getting it close. Of course, if time allows, it won’t hurt to capture a quick plate shot in case making a composite shot ends up the better option.

Pose and Photograph

Again, with everything set up, it’s time to capture the shot, and don’t forget to try different angles and poses, expressions, etc.

Here are the final shots from this scene.

Settings: 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 50 | Flash Power: 9 (Full Power)
up close couple for one-light setups for epic portraits
Settings: 1/2000, f/2, ISO 50 | Flash Power: 9

Scene #3 for One-Light Setups: Golden Hour Tree Cluster

Now, for the last of our one-light setups. With the light fading, we had to move quickly, and we set up in front of a cluster of Joshua trees. With this setup, we’re just going to add a kiss of light and go for a natural light look, taking full advantage of golden hour in Joshua Tree.

Ambient Exposure

We’ll keep the ambient exposure dark to capture a more dramatic golden hour portrait.

Modify or Add Light

bts for portraits

As we mentioned previously, we’re just going to add a kiss of light to add highlights to our subjects. In this scene, we placed the added light a good distance from our subjects, and it’s coming from roughly the same direction as the sun, just off to the side a bit.

Take a look at the difference between natural light and the shot with added flash.

before and after for one-light-setups for epic portraits

The differences are subtle, yet effective, especially once we move the image into post for editing.

Pose and Photograph

We placed the subjects in an open (separated) pose, holding hands, and we’re shooting from behind them. The subject on the right is looking back at the subject on the left and catching light from our added light source to preserve more details on her face.

Here’s a look at the final image:

golden hour portrait
Settings: 1/1000, f/2, ISO 50 | Flash Power: 10


We hope you found these three simple one-light setups for epic portraits helpful. After working through this shoot and demonstrating these setups, we have to say that Profoto’s new line of softboxes work like a dream. They’re highly portable, easy to set up and breakdown, and lightweight to boot. On top of that, after running them into some cacti with no ill effects, we can confidently say that they’re durable as well. Basically, they offer everything you want from an on-location lighting setup. We always say to use what you have available, but if or when you have a chance to add these to your arsenal, they’re worth the investment.