New Workshop! Lighting 3 | Advanced Off Camera Flash

Tips & Tricks

Using One Light For Ultra Soft Portrait Light | Joel Grimes

By Chris Nachtwey on December 24th 2014

When I first started creating portraits long before I made money with my photography, I was that photographer who loved natural light. Even just the thought of using one flash to help light a portrait seemed nerve-wracking to my younger, less experienced self. I got over my fear by forcing myself to learn manual flash and eventually bought a Light stand, umbrella, and a sync cord for my speed light and was hooked almost instantly!

Since my early off-camera flash days, I’ve added more speed lights to my collection, radio triggers, and I can’t go to a wedding or session without multiple off-camera flash set ups. My point here is that even being scared of off-camera lighting, once I forced myself to learn, using just one light I was able to shape and mold portrait light like never before, and the best thing is one simple off camera flash is ultra powerful when used correctly.


In the Westcott sponsored video below, Joel Grimes shows you just how powerful one off camera flash and a white wall can be for creating ultra soft portrait light with minimal gear and investment.



The techniques Joel uses are about as simple as one light portraiture can get. Using a large umbrella with a diffuser on the front of it very close to his model will create extremely soft even light on one side of the model’s face. That’s great, but a downfall of using one light, if you’re looking to create soft even light across your whole subject, you will need to add another light to fill in shadows. Joel fixes this issue by using a large white wall as a huge white bounce card to fill in the shadows on his model’s screen left side. The result is extremely soft even light and a beautiful portrait.



This technique may seem simple to some of you, but if you’re new to the off-camera flash game, it might be eye opening. Joel shows us that even with just one light, we can shape and mold light to suit our needs or tastes easily. Personally, I love this look; it’s clean, simple, and easy to do in the studio or in the field. Don’t be scared of off-camera flash, once you start using it, I promise you will never go back!

Via: Westcott Youtube page

Images captured via screen grab. 

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Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Rafael Steffen

    This article is simply beautiful. His work is just amazing. Thanks again for sharing!

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  2. Graham Curran

    The ceiling in my home studio isn’t high enough for one of those enormous umbrellas, no matter how much I might want one.

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  3. Josiah Dewey

    I like the look.

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  4. Basit Zargar

    Nice !!

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  5. David De Fotograaf

    If we can learn something else from this: the only limit is your creativity.

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  6. Richard Bremer

    I’ll be trying out this tip coming monday! Let’s see if I can recreate this. Does anyone have an idea how many stops over neutral this is shot?

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    • Stan Rogers

      That really depends a lot on your camera, your model’s skin tones and her (or his, I suppose) wardrobe — and keep in mind that what you capture is only half-done. Joel’s work, even the “straightest” stuff he shoots, spends some time in Photoshop, and this shot is no exception.

      For the exposure, Joel would tell you to trust your eyes and the little screen on the back of the camera — you want a picture, not a set of numbers. But there is a limit to that trust as well — the highlight warning blinkies (or the histogram, to a lesser extent) can come in pretty handy when you’re dancing that close to the edge. There may be white areas that you can afford (or desire) to let go, but there are also areas where you don’t want clipping. If they’re not bright enough in-camera, you can adjust tones in post without losing detail at the top end. The image will also (probably) need to be desaturated somewhat, otherwise the transition from porcelain white highlights to natural skin tones in shadowed areas can look really garish. (Joel, by the way, desaturates almost everything anyway because he’s horribly colour-blind. That could be a major handicap, but only if your emphasis is on colour.)

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    • Richard Bremer

      Thanks for your reply, Stan! I’ll definitly will look into your pointers and start experimenting a bit. And will be having lots of fun doing it :)
      But trusting the little screen on the back of my camera… Not by a longshot! Truth is, I’m a numbers kind of guy, love my lightmeter :)

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    • Stan Rogers

      Then, unfortunately, you’re handicapping yourself. A hand-held light meter is great for getting you into the ballpark, but it won’t help you find the right seat. (Unless you get as obsessive about things as we did with the full-on Zone System in Ye Olde Dayes, where we had compensation dialed in for the film emulsion we were using, for each of the apertures on each of our lenses, and when it mattered for the discrepancies in our shutters. It was a bit of a production. Your f-stop is not a t-stop; f/8 doesn’t mean the same thing on all of your lenses, or even on all of the focal lengths in the zoom range of a single lens. Your camera’s ISO 100 is not the same as another camera’s ISO 100, even if both cameras are the same brand. And when you compensate for thee mid-grey exposure level differences, your white headroom isn’t the same. Trust the screen.)

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  7. Stan Rogers

    By they bye… that Westcott “7 foot” umbrella is really only 5′ 9-1/2″ in diameter. (That’s not a knock at Westcott; umbrellas are measured over the top for some reason lost to history, and this one does have more than 7′ of rib.) The point being that unless you have Hobbit-height ceilings, you DO have room to get this big beastie off the ground, and you CAN fill it effectively from around the focus point (about 14-15″ down the shaft for infinity focus) using a dome diffuser (Sto-fen) on a single speedlight in the SB800/900/910, 580EX/600EX-RT or YN560 range (in other words, one of the larger on-camera class of speedlights). You might have to crank your ISO up as high as, say, 200 to get reasonable depth of field, depending on the shot, and your 8-foot ceilings may mean that your light winds up slightly softer than Joel’s (sorry about that). If Westcott’s price seems high to you, well, there’s the Paul C. Buff PLM (good) and a host of off-brand versions (variable) as well. (If you really need an excuse not to try this, it’s that you’ll need a “real” light stand and umbrella swivel to manage the weight and leverage. I mean, this thing is light for what it is, but one does need to remember that “what it is” is BIG.)

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      It’s my understanding that if you took the fabric off of the umbrella and laid it flat then that would measure 7′. I don’t know, but that’s what I read in a review. Regarding the light stand, Joel uses an Avenger 11.15′ Roller Stand. That’ll set you back about $300.00

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      Another excellent demo from Joel. I really pay attention to his one light techniques because before his famous three light set-up, for many years he only used one light with a cross light approach.

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    • Stan Rogers

      That’s the same as measuring over the top. I *believe* the reason is that back in the mists of time, one would buy the frame and fabric separately (the one from a cane-maker or chair bodger, the other from a tailor or seamstress), so the frame you needed was larger than the umbrella you wanted. You don’t need a high roller or C-stand, though — any reasonably heavy-duty 8′ or taller stand will do. It’s just the sub-$20 6-1/2-footers (or really cheap knock-offs) that you’d need to worry about. I do find that a heavy-duty swivel (like the Manfrotto Lite-Tite) is needed though; the plastic ones (apart from the ratcheted variety, such as the Lastolites) can’t clamp down tight enough to manage the leverage.

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  8. robert s

    nice picture..and…wow..bright.

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