One light setup

To me, lighting is a fundamental factor in photography and I guess that many of you share this opinion. People use one light at the very beginning, when they don’t have more equipment, but a photo taken using one light doesn’t have to be worse than a photo taken with two or three lights. As usual, it all depends on the result you want to achieve – and there are situations where one light is absolutely sufficient and more lights would simply spoil the effect. Another example is outdoor photo shoots, where lights only supplement available light: you can achieve a lot even with one light because you may use available light to fill the shadows or illuminate the background as well as direct it with reflectors. Studio photography has more limitations, but one light still doesn’t mean a poor shot.

I usually use strongly focused lights and selectively illuminate the chosen fragments of a photo. My setup includes one key light (preferably with a grid, which prevents light from escaping to the sides), another light for the background and hair lights (speedlights, whose stream is rather narrow) or studio lights with snoot modifiers or the smallest strip boxes possible (usually additionally equipped with honeycomb grids). Since I have a separate light for the background, I make effort to prevent other lights from illuminating it at all. To sum up, I’m definitely in control of the effect and can create a specified atmosphere using light instead of Photoshop (though I’m not one of those who reckon that a photo is better if you achieve your effect with light – what matters most to me is the result). Doing everything with light simply teaches me to take increasingly better shots and I don’t waste so much time editing them.

I currently take hardly any photos with one light, so I’ll illustrate this text with older shots or a bit newer ones, which were taken with two lights, but the second one wasn’t necessary and could have been replaced with something else such as a reflector.

One light setup

There are situations where one light is all I need, e.g. a narrow-framed beauty shot in which the background isn’t visible and the hairstyle is shown only partially:

Nikon D700 | Nikkor 135mm 2D DC | F/9, 1/200 s, ISO 200
Natalia, MuA: Jola Surmańska

Even if I had used a hair light on the left to take this shot, it wouldn’t be visible at all, just like background lighting. A hair light on the right would have influenced the photo, but in a rather negative way. The shadows at the bottom can be lit with a reflector – you don’t need a light to do it. Sadly, my retouch skills concerning beauty shots were still rather small when I was editing this photo. Today I would edit it in a less aggressive way, but it’s irrelevant to ponder this here – the post is about light, after all.

One light is good not only for close-ups. You can create an intriguing atmosphere using shadows instead of omnipresent light:

Zdjęcie z jedną lampą - one light setup

Nikon D700 | Nikkor 135mm 2D DC | F/9, 1/200 s, ISO
Sylwia Chrzanowska, MuA: Karolina Zientek, fryzura: Le’Prestige

I took the above shot using one speedlight with a transparent umbrella. A beauty dish would have done much better, but the Quantuum R+ light I had at that time didn’t hold it too well – the modifier was able to come undone despite a blockade. Since everything would have had to hang high over the model’s head, I was worrying if she would have survived an accidental fall of that scrap.

However, one light means more than just beauty shots. I used the same set (a Yongnuo YN-460 II light and a transparent umbrella) to take the photo below (and hundreds of others, I believe):

Nikon D700 | Sigma 50mm 1,4 EX DG HSM | F/5,0, 1/200 s, ISO 200
Klaudia Danch

In this case, I don’t think I would have done it better with a beauty dish, but adding another light would certainly have spoiled the result I was willing to achieve. This photo shoot was described in another post, which you can read to learn how the above photo was taken. I’ll just add here that it was a breakthrough shot to me because I understood that shadows were what I liked most and, even more importantly, that it could all be done using lights and not Photoshop (I had earlier believed that atmosphere in photos was created mainly during post-processing).

This is, in turn, what a photo with strongly focused light looks like (a 70 cm beauty dish with a grid and no other light or reflector):

One light setup - zdjęcie z jedną lampą

Nikon D700 | Sigma 24-70 | 24 mm | F/6,3, 1/125 s, ISO 320
Aleksandra Cogiel, MuA: Renata Jackowska

Of course, this photo needn’t have been so shaded, but I positioned the beauty dish on the right on purpose – I wanted to get strong shadows and prevent the wall in the background from appearing flat. If I had directed it more at the wall, the photo would be entirely different. Still, I would have needed another light to illuminate the place under the sofa or the light I used would have had to be moved away so much that I would have run out of place in that small room.

When one light is not enough, but you don’t have more…

At the beginning of the adventure with photography, people often have only one light when they need more to carry out their ideas. Selective lighting doesn’t really work then – the person in the photo is lit, but the rest remains invisible or too dark. It’s also hard to reflect light with anything because a honeycomb grid ensures that it’s directed at one specified spot and nowhere else. Thus, using a grid may complicate the matter, but let’s not generalize: everything depends on the height, the distance from the model and the angle at which the light is positioned.

When I take a beauty shot showing the model from head to bust, the background is nearly always visible:

Nikon D700 | Nikkor 135mm 2D DC | F/10, 1/200, ISO 320
Aleksandra Cogiel, MuA: Karolina Zientek

In this case, I illuminated the background with another light. However, if I had had only one light at my disposal, I would have used a black background and positioned it closer to the model so as to make the key light fall on it, too, otherwise the color of the background (black and white equally) wouldn’t have mattered because white would also have looked like a black patch. You must remember that the model cannot stand too close to the background – if they do, their shadow will fall on it.

I could have used something white as the background and placed it in such a distance from the model that it would have appeared dark grey. However, I would have needed more space to do so – and I usually don’t have more space. I have taken most shots in very small rooms and, in addition, used a reflector leaned against the wall as a background. Therefore, illuminating it with lights is simply more convenient than changing the distance from the model.

As I’ve already mentioned, if you don’t illuminate the background (with a key or additional light), it will be a black patch, which isn’t desirable in most cases…

One light setup - zdjęcie z jedną lampą

Nikon D700 | Nikkor 135mm 2D DC | F/7,1, 1/200 s, ISO 200
Magdalena Żalińska, MuA: Renata Jackowska

The above photo shows well what I mean. I took it using a beauty dish with a grid on. The light illuminated the background very slightly – I could have taken an identical shot without that light. The model wasn’t lit with hair lights, so she blurs in with the background. If the background hadn’t been illuminated at all, you would see a big patch merging with the hair (though it actually does look like that on many monitors because it’s a near miss…). I definitely don’t reckon I took this photo well – I could have done much better.

Therefore, even if I plan to have a black background (which is what I usually plan), I illuminate it with a light to prevent it from appearing too uniform and create a nice transition from black to shades of grey. If I used one light, I would have to make it illuminate both the model and the background. In such cases, the background has to be relatively close to the model and a lot depends on the modifier on the light. If it’s a big octa or an umbrella, there will be no problem: the space behind the model won’t look like a black hole. Everything will be lit evenly and if the background seems too bright, I’ll simply move it further away from the model (if I have space to do so). I don’t have to mull over it – that’s why I’ve written above that focused lighting doesn’t work: whenever I have a wider stream of light, I don’t have to think up solutions. However, if I use a beauty dish (with a grid on, to make it more difficult), the effect will be totally different and the height of the light as well as the distance from the model will both matter a lot. In such case, I can use a light positioned rather close above the model (and, consequently, at a small angle) to make less light miss the background

Filling the shadows

The background is not all, though. I often need to fill the shadows with something from the bottom. When I want to brighten a shadow on the neck, a white reflector (of approx. 50 cm) suffices. Actually, it doesn’t have to be a reflector – anything white (such as a piece of polystyrene foam or Bristol board) is enough. A silver surface could reflect more light, but that light would also become harder. First, I don’t really want it to be strong (I just want to brighten the shadows). Second, it would be hard, but in a rather negative way.

Hair light

Owning only one light doesn’t mean you can’t get hair light. A reflector won’t really do – you’ll need something narrow, but tall (e.g. 25 x 60 cm). It can be a piece of polystyrene foam, a mirror or something painted white or silver (depending on how strong reflection you want to obtain). Hard hair lights produce a good result – I often use lights without any softening modifiers myself for that purpose. You can, for example, take a piece of polystyrene foam and if you need a silver surface, you’ll wrap it with a space blanket (available in pharmacies for a few dollars). It’s silver on one side and golden on the other. Many people use it to make reflectors, but I don’t recommend doing so.


When artificial light and available light mix, many problems disappear. You can set exposure so as to make available light only fill the shadows or illuminate the background as well. You can reflect it and mix it with artificial light to your heart’s content. It does require some skills and solving other problems (I’ve discussed the basic issues related to that here), but you no longer encounter a part of the problems related to the insufficient number of lights. Thus far, I’ve usually used reflectors outdoors, but this season I intend to flash a bit more in the field. However, I photographed my first Lara Croft using one light and the background was illuminated only with available light:

Nikon D90 | Nikkor 50 mm 1,8 | F/2,2, 1/60, ISO 400
Klaudia Danch, MuA: Renata Jackowska

I’m not going to elaborate on this again – I’ve already described everything in this article.


I’ve never mulled over replacing additional lights with reflected light (except in outdoor photo shoots). It occurred to me quite quickly that I should buy a few more lights and since the cost of manual Yongnuo lights is really low (less than forty dollars), I didn’t procrastinate much – you can read a whole article about it here, anyway. However, I’ve never avoided taking photos using one light, without filling the shadows (well, I did avoid that a bit at the very beginning, when I believed that the softer light I had the better it was). Moreover, I always start from positioning one light and add another one only when I see that, for example, a hair light is necessary.