How to Use a Single Light Source When Taking Photographs

Today let’s discuss using a single flash and show how to make the most of an on-camera flash, an off-camera light, and how reflectors can make it appear as if you have more light sources.

Getting Started

When we say on-camera flash we are not referring to the built-in pop-up flash on your camera, this flash is mostly useless for high-quality images as the light is a direct, straight-on light source that is less than flattering on a subject.

For a flash, you will want an accessory flash that attaches to your camera hot shoe or can be triggered remotely via wireless, PC sync, IR, or other means. You can also use third party flashes if they are compatible with your camera.

Using On-Camera Flash Units

The main problem with using an on-camera flash is the same as using the built-in flash, the light goes straight at the subject and flattens features and can cause red-eye. With an on-camera flash you almost always want to use a diffuser if shooting straight on. There are a wide range of diffusers such as my favourite, the Gary Fong Lightsphere.

What you really want to achieve is a larger light source to help prevent harsh shadows. Without a diffuser, your best bet is to aim the flash at something you can bounce the light off of such as a wall, ceiling, foam board, reflector, or even a white shirt. In a pinch, I have seen napkins, sheets, playing cards, index cards, and small children used to bounce light.

A diffuser like the Gary Fong Lightsphere works well because it not only send light towards the subject however will bounce light from all directions softening shadows very nicely. This type of diffuser is great for event photographers (like weddings, etc) because you can’t always set up an optimal lighting setup during an event like that.

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If you have not purchased some kind of accessory flash yet, the number one recommendation I can give you is to make sure that the head can tilt up and down and rotate side to side so that you have a wide variety of positions to use to utilise the bounce methods.

Getting the flash off-camera

Once you get your flash off-camera, a whole new world will open to you in terms of lighting options. There are multiple ways of firing the flash off-camera:

  1. Using a hot-shoe extension cable
  2. Using wireless triggers such as the Cactus remotes or Pocket Wizards
  3. Using a PC Sync cable if your flash supports it (there are camera and flash adapters available if you need to add this ability to a unit that doesn’t have built-in support for it)

From a cost point of view, the Cactus triggers or PC Sync cables are usually the best choice and provide the most flexibility.

Continuous Lights

If you want to use other light sources such as hot lights like the Photobasic’s Light Kit, this is certainly another option and you can use this tutorial just as easily with a flash or other light source.

Positioning a Single Light

Now that we have the flash off-camera, where should we start to position it? Let’s look at a basic lighting setup as shown in the picture here. With the light source pointing at the subject from about a 45 degree angle, this will add depth to subject by actually adding shadows. While you may think that you want to remove all shadows from an image, if there are no shadows the subject will look flat. By adding shadows you bring back definition and depth.

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What we want to avoid are very harsh shadows that can then distract from the subject. It is this middle ground that we normally want to achieve. If there is enough ambient light, or light coming in from a window, it may be enough to soften the shadows and give you the look that you want, if not, you may end up with a look that is too dark on one side or has shadows that are too harsh.

Single Light Source

Using a reflector as a second light source

The easiest and cheapest way to add a second light source is with some form of reflector. As we have mentioned before, there are a number of things you can use for this purpose such as a reflector from a company like Wescott, Photo Basics, or Photoflex, white foam core board, or other reflective surfaces.

A mirror actually does not do a good job because it will not diffuse the light the way you will want it to and you will usually end up washing out the shadows that you actually want to maintain. What we are really talking about here is bouncing excess light from the main light source back to the subject.

Since this light will be a reflection, it will naturally be softer than the main light source so it usually won’t completely remove shadows however it can be used to soften them enough to give you the depth and definition you are looking for without washing out the shadows entirely.

In this diagram, notice that we have not moved the camera or the original light source however have added a reflector to the side of the subject (camera left) to soften up the harsh shadows caused by the key light.

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Faking a Ring Flash

The final single light source setup we are going to cover is what we call a fake ring light. A real ring light is a circular light that creates a light that appears to wrap around the subject, this can be a great light source. This can be a very flattering light because of the way the light comes from the edges of the subject instead of totally straight on.

The way we are going to fake the ring flash is by placing a large umbrella directly behind the camera. While this may seem odd to be blocking the light with the camera, the size of the light source will not only make up for it, however it will actually look good in the subject’s eyes by showing the ring instead of a solid light source. With a large enough umbrella you can even stand in front of the umbrella without blocking too much light.

Fake Ring Flash

While we have only touched on the basics of using a single light and a reflector, we have seen very elaborate lighting setups with only a single light source and a number of reflectors to provide fill light, back lighting, hair lighting, and more all from a single main key light.

Foam core is available at most office supply stores and craft stores and makes an excellent material to experiment with and build up your lighting skills.

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash