The One-Light Studio
thomaspark | Photo Techniques | Published May 22, 2012
|This bold look was created using a single off-axis light source.|
Photography, as we all know, literally means 'drawing with light'. And working in the studio provides an enormous amount of control and flexibility with regard to lighting. But great results don't always require complicated techniques or a cartload of equipment. In this article, I'll walk you through a range of highly effective options when 'drawing' with just a single light source.
Keeping it simple
I learned one of my biggest lessons on a location shoot back when I was a photography student. The venue was a large classical music performance/recording space that had rather unique architectural features. And before the models arrived, I lit the set by first taking a Polaroid, seeing which parts of the room were dark, and then setting up lights to fill in those spots, repeating the process until the whole environment was evenly illuminated. My goal was to capture all the details of this interesting location.
When the first of the day's models arrived on set, I took another Polaroid and quickly realized that my lighting was a disaster! Everything was completely flat. Minor adjustments of my lights didn't help either, so I decided on a more drastic change: I turned off all of the lights that I'd painstakingly set up and started over from square one.
Beginning again, with a single lighting source helped me realize what I was missing; contrast and drama. In my desire to light the environment completely, I'd robbed the scene of all sense of dimension. By illuminating the scene with a single light, I immediately created dimensionality and contrast that had been sorely lacking in my test shots. Indeed, using a single light source in the studio can be an interesting and valuable exercise for any photographer. There's a visceral experience in watching how a scene changes as you move a single light axially around a subject.
We'll start with a single light plus beauty dish (a circular reflector) shot against a plain white background. Even with a very simple setup like this one, you can create different looks by simply changing the position of the light, as you'll see in the examples below.
|Here's an example of front lighting. This style was often used to shoot
Hollywood actors in the 1940's and 50's. It has regained popularity
in some contemporary advertising photography.
The image above was shot using an on-axis light source - a light placed directly in front of the model, on the same axis as the camera. This is a very candid style, similar to what you would get with a ring flash or a simple on-camera flash. Over the last decade, this type of lighting has become popular in fashion advertisements, particularly those set in hotel rooms or other space-constrained locations. It flattens out contours, which is useful for hiding imperfections in the skin or overly-prominent features. Take note though; done poorly, images lit in this style can all too easily resemble snapshots or even worse, mugshots.
In this next image, we've done nothing more than move the light approximately 15 to 20 degrees off-axis. Yet you can clearly see an increased sense of dimensionality and contrast. The lighting is not quite as flat. We are starting to pick up shadows in the model's nose and chin that were completely washed away in the on-axis lighting setup.
|Here the light has been moved slightly (about 15-20 degrees) off-axis.
Note the difference in depth and tone between this and the front-lit
image shown previously.
It's really worth spending a few moments comparing the image above with the on-axis lighting example. Why? Because looking at photographs is a wonderful way to learn about lighting. Even without seeing the lighting setups I'm revealing in this article, you can deconstruct them from clues in the finished image. Ask yourself, 'How crisp or diffuse are the shadows?' 'What is the shape of the light(s) visible in reflections, such as the catchlight in the model's eye?'
A neatly circular catchlight, like the one visible in the image above, correctly suggests a beauty dish. A ring flash, by comparison would create a skinny doughnut-shaped catchlight. A softbox would produce a rectangle, while an umbrella would appear round with bright radial spines. The position of the catchlight and the direction in which the shadows fall also allow us to infer the placement and height of the lights.
|This single light, off-axis setup is easy to achieve even without a large studio light. Using a wired, infrared or radio-controlled trigger from the PC sync or hot shoe of your camera lets you place small, portable flash units off-camera.|
|As you can see here from the model's shadow, the light in this image is
about 45 degrees off-axis, but she is directly facing the light. This again
gives us an overall 'flat' effect.
So far, we've looked at the effects of changing the position of the light. Yet the final look of any image is also influenced by the relationship of the subject to the light source. If we place the light source off-axis but have the model looking directly into the light (as shown above), the effect will be very similar to the on-axis light with forward-facing model image we saw earlier.
|In a typical 'three quarter' lighting setup, the light source is postioned about 45 degrees off-axis.|
Now look at what happens if we have the model positioned so that her body faces a light that is now 90 degrees off-axis from the camera lens. This commonly used effect - known as side lighting or split lighting - creates a more dramatic look. Notice how the definition of facial features and even the folds of the dress have changed; the side-lit image has much deeper and more pronounced shadows.
|A basic example of side lighting, also referred to as split lighting.|
Compare this side-lit image to the one at the top of this page. Although the pose and disposition of the model is similar, the light has been moved directly to the model's side, 90 degrees off-axis.
|In this shot of the side lighting setup you can see the light is positioned at a 90 degree axis to the camera lens with the model's body facing directly towards it.|
Let's take a look at another example of side lighting. With the light illuminating the model from a nearly 90 degree angle, and her upper body turned at a 45 degree angle to the camera, the result is dramatic. There are distinct shadows defining the model's facial structure, arms and figure. Compare this image to the previous examples; the contours are much more pronounced.
|Here, the light is positioned to the side of the model, whose body is
rotated about halfway between the camera and the light source. This
produces a more stylized look with deep, defined shadows.
We've seen how using a single light source can lead to a variety of relatively simple looks. But limiting yourself to a single light does not mean you cannot go for more sophisticated lighting effects.
|This image was lit using a similarly minimalistic single-light technique.|
Contrast is a primary source of visual drama. It is created through the separation of dark and bright tones in an image. Consequently, it's easy to create dramatic images when using a small number of lights; in such a situation, things that are not expressly illuminated will likely be rather dark.
The image above was created with a single light source projecting an angled cone of light onto the background. This produces a strongly shadowed image with high contrast. I also used the contours of the light cone and the model's shadow on the background as compositional elements. The crispness of the image comes in part from the delineation of the model's silhouette against the brightly lit wall behind her. This would not be quite as pronounced or effective if her arm and body had been lit with a fill light.
|Here is the light setup used to create the image above. A single light in a simple reflector projects a conical swatch of illumination on the background.|
I hope that these examples inspire you to experiment on your own with a single light setup. Working in this way is one of the best methods I know to develop a clear understanding of what the equipment at your disposal can be used for, and what each lighting modifier brings to the mix.
Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To follow his work, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com
Models and crew: Melissa Ann, hair and makeup by Calvy Tran. Melissa wears a hat by Thomas Park (top) and a dress by Poleci. Jessica Arden, makeup by Calvy Tran, hair by Jessee Skittrall @ Absolut Hair (absoluthair.com). Jessica is wearing Costume National.