Three Easy Lighting Setups With Just One Light

by William Lulow

If you are just starting to play around with artificial light, either with hotlight, speedlights or regular studio strobes, these simple setups, with diagrams, might just help. They are a good place to begin!

One light can be used to make some very dramatic portraits and even some fairly well-lit ones as well. You can begin by placing a light high above the camera and a little to one side. This position is known as a HOLLYWOOD LIGHT because it basically lights the face totally, the way Hollywood studio photographers used to before electronic flash was invented.  It also creates a little triangular shadow under the nose:


This is what the lighting diagram would look like:

Keep in mind that the position of the light is high and a bit to one side of the camera, but basically aimed directly at the subject.

Here’s another setup you can do with one light:

Note that the light has been moved more to the left of the camera, but is still the same height as the HOLLYWOOD LIGHT. This lighting is called a REMBRANDT LIGHT:


It produces a telltale triangle or window of light under the subject’s opposite eye. It’s quite a bit more dramatic because of the deep shadow it creates on the subject’s opposite side.

And, here’s a third setup you can achieve with one light:


If you move the light to a 90-degree angle from the camera axis, you will achieve a SIDE LIGHT. One side of the face is lit while the other remains in shadow.

These lighting setups can be used with any light source. I usually like to begin with a photoflood bulb in a small reflector because it’s a whole lot easier to see the effects of the lighting. You don’t even have to take a picture! You should practice setting these lightings up with just a hotlight and then transfer them to a speedlight if you like or to studio strobes, if you have them. Whatever light source you use, the principles of applying the light remain the same.

More lighting setups can be made with just one light, but if you begin here, you will readily see how the application of studio lighting, especially for portraits can progress. Try these on for size and see which one you tend to prefer. Then, by varying the light-to-subject distance you can achieve darker or lighter effects. If you want to lighten the shadows, try using a 16×20-inch white board as a reflector on the opposite side of the light.

(Lighting diagrams: Don Gianatti)