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.

On-axis light

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.

Here you can see the actual lighting setup used in the image shown above. When the light is positioned in directly front of and high above the model, it is sometimes called 'butterfly lighting', a reference to the shape of the shadow cast under the nose.

The beauty dish (partially shown here) is a wide circular reflector that provides light that is less harsh than direct flash, yet more directional than a softbox.

Off-axis light

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.

Click here to continue reading our One-Light Studio article...