How To Make A Lighting Setup With One Light

by William Lulow

Note: This article begins a series of lessons about the application of lighting. It starts with one light and progresses up to four. This is lighting basics. Try to follow each lesson. When you have completed all of them, you will have a good working knowledge of how to use artificial light. I publish these from time to time, so if you missed them previously, start following them today!

One single light can be a very effective source for creating interesting portraits, and that’s where we begin.  We usually have to direct light to make any kind of visual statement, so we begin with a single bulb  – can be any bulb but usually a 500 or 250watt photoflood placed in a 10-inch reflector will give enough intensity and direction. You can get one with a spring-clamp so that it can be placed anywhere, but a light stand is a better idea. Remember that 500watt bulbs get kind of hot after a while, so make sure you’ve got a towel or pot holder to handle them.

If you are serious about learning photographic lighting, you will have to invest some money; not a lot, at first, but you will need some light stands, bulbs and reflectors plus necessary hardware. You can probably get all you need for under $100. You just cannot learn the basics without using some equipment. It’s also difficult to learn lighting basics with speedlights or built-in flash. Once you learn these first steps, you will then be able to translate them to speedlights and studio strobes. I will tell you how to set everything up, but there is just no substitute for trying it yourself.

You are going to start by placing the light to the left or right of the camera and just looking at the effect. Don’t take any pictures yet, but just notice what happens when you begin to move the light around your subject. Notice where the shadows fall. Notice what the highlights look like. Also notice how your subject reacts.  Watch how the face changes characteristics with light coming from different angles.

A word about subjects: it’s best to use people you know and who know you as your “guinea pigs.” You should observe them while you are setting up the light to see how they “feel” about sitting for you while you fumble around with your new equipment. It is information you can and should use later on.

I usually start by placing the light high, slightly to one side and behind the camera so that it will light the face just about fully. Notice the shadows under the chin and under the nose. See where the shadows fall on the background. This basic starting point is called a HOLLYWOOD LIGHT. It is called that because it was the type of lighting used to make portraits and headshots of Hollywood stars in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. That triangular shadow under the nose is the tell-tale sign of a Hollywood Light. It is a flat lighting except for the shadows it creates.

This is how you  begin learning to use artificial light. You need to observe closely all the things I mentioned. Even if you have already used electronic flash units, you need to stop and notice what can be achieved with a single light bulb in a reflector. Notice the small, white catchlight in the subject’s eyes. This tells you where the light was placed. This will also help you greatly in your application of artificial light. Notice also, the dark background. This is because the main light (Hollywood) will only travel as far as the subject.