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Top 11 tips for portraiture using a single flash

Paul Petch explains his use of Speedlites when shooting portraits, and provides his top 11 tips for using a single flash

2 January 2016


Paul Petch explains his use of Speedlites when shooting portraits, and provides his top 11 tips for using a single flash

Shooting high-quality and well-lit portraits can be done with a single strobe or flash. True story. Maybe your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase multiple lights for portraits, or maybe you like to keep things simple and travel light. Thankfully, you can produce a wide variety of lighting scenarios using a single flash. Don’t get bullied into thinking the best portraits are created with complex off-camera set-ups that take hours to refine. 

My own story of using Speedlites started with a single unit, and from there I progressed into using multiple sources if required. Even with a magnitude of kit at my disposal I still prefer to use a single light because, in all honesty, it’s all I need for 90 per cent of my on-location portraits. I don’t often have the luxury of assistants, so a single set-up means that I can get in and get out of a commercial shoot within a few hours and be 100-per-cent self-sufficient. My single-flash kit fits into a backpack and I can carry it on foot, by bike, on public transport, or throw it in my car … oh, and it works.

Single flash and soft box grid

What Speedlites and kits are suitable?

Any flash is suitable to be honest, but it’s best to get one with a bit of oomph. Full-manual control is cheaper, and I use Yongnuo Speedlites extensively due to their cheap cost. But for a lower price bracket you do sacrifice high-speed sync and auto settings. For most shoots these features are not required, and partnering up with a cable opens up a much more reliable connection to your flash than cheap wireless triggers do. I use cables from OCF Gear that are robust and straight. Having a straight cable means it lies on the floor versus being coiled up and hanging from the stand for people to trip over.

Anna Frost single flash on-camera set to 105mm with Sto-Fen

If you wish to start out with a more robust upgrade path (and have some money to invest into it), then adding a Speedlite with high-speed sync (HSS) and auto modes is recommended. Again, you can shop around and find other brands — these days there are really good units for less than the bigger players. Trust me on this, HSS is a lifesaver for exposing in situations with lots of light, such as outdoors — it’s so worth it. But, yes, a $120 flash will also do the trick with some compromises.

Single flash in soft box on pole

Light stands are not all equal. I adore my Manfrotto Nano because it’s light, small, and portable. It’s pretty stable once set up too, thanks to its robust fittings, and it doesn’t cost the earth. This is what you need to consider when buying a light stand — does it stand up, and is it going to wear well when you are hanging and screwing accessories onto it. You also need an adjustable head to angle your light to act as a positive engagement for modifiers. I like to place my backpack, or random objects on location, onto the legs to act as weight and support … or you could carry a 5kg sandbag.

Modifiers are what you shoot your flash through, or into, to control the light’s output, direction, and feel. The simplest, and most portable, solution for swamping the room or subject with light is to use a Sto-Fen diffuser or similar, and aim upwards towards the ceiling or at the subject. You can also use no modifier. You will be amazed what you can light with a single flash, but the negative is that the light is very uncontrolled.

Umbrellas are another cheap and portable modifier, and they work well to soften the light more than a simple diffuser. You can shoot through it, bounce off it, and even use it if it’s raining (that’s a joke). The negative is that light can spill out onto the subject, and even though light is more controllable than with the diffuser, an umbrella can still be tricky to direct light with.

Single flash through umbrella

I choose to use soft boxes extensively over any other modifier due to the quality of light that they produce, and the ability to control the direction of light. Most soft boxes have lips on them to stop spill, as well as the ability to add grids. Grids are like fabric mesh that tunnels even more light toward the subject. There are a few models on the market that are a box or umbrella. The umbrella is easier to transport, but far less robust — especially in wind. I’d choose the style of modifier based on the location. Is it inside or out?

Using on-camera flash is OK. No, it really is. I’ve tried all sorts of flashback magic, and, yes, for creating and controlling light, off-camera is the champ. But don’t feel that on-camera is all bad. For events and documentary work, on-camera flash works, and it works very well — I’m talking about adding a flash to your camera’s hot shoe, not pop-up. For filler light, and to knock out shadows, on-camera with a Sto-Fen or Gary Fong is hard to beat.

Single flash soft boxed and grid 3

Best of all, you can focus on the moments and images and not have to worry about lazy assistants, cables, triggers, and knocking people out at the wedding you are shooting. For the ultimate (and cheaper) assistant, try the aperture priority mode and the E-TTL (auto) setting if your flash has it.

Using a single flash

Flash light is like any other light source. Don’t be scared by it, think of your flashlight like soft early-morning / late-day light, or harsh middle-of-the-day sun. Soft light creates fewer shadows, with softer edges, and is pleasing to most skin tones, while harsh light is sharp, and creates strong shadows with brutal contrast.

Using no modifier leads to light that is harsh with contrast, while a simple diffuser takes some of the harshness away. Using an umbrella softens the light more, and the soft box does this even more if you add the inner diffusers. You can, of course, remove all the inner diffusers in a soft box to make it act like a beauty dish with high contrast. You can see why I like soft boxes, they are very versatile and offer several light effects, and then you can add the grid too. The grid is used for so many of my portraits these days, as it allows me to direct light at the subject without it spilling past them.

Single flash source soft boxed

You understand that flash is a light source and how it controls and modifies light. Now what? Well, you need to set up your kit and start shooting. Make mistakes, and make lots of them. Shoot your cat, your husband in his man cave, your neighbour, your wife in labour (or maybe not) … but keep shooting. Accept that it will take a while to understand how to expose the image — but also be assured that it’s simple.

Single flash soft box grid

Here are my top 11 tips for using a single flash:

  1. Shutter speed controls ambient (available) light. Aperture controls flash light.

  2. Placing the flash side-on to the subject will create moody photos.

  3. Shoot at an aperture of more than seven to guarantee that you get everything in focus, a great starting point when you start out. 

  4. Shoot at f/2.8 with your subject away from the background for smooth backgrounds. There’ll be no more seeing the paper or material creases and shadows.

  5. Remember you can add or take away light by moving the light source closer or further away.

  6. Want to shoot wider, but can see the light stand? Clone it out in Lightroom or Photoshop afterwards

  7. Not all flash batteries are equal, so shop around. Ask questions from people who use flash. Buy a few sets, and charge them well.

  8. Shoot full power in flash and expose in-camera. This results in less stress and less confusion.

  9. On-camera flash is great for events, filler, and group photos. Fit and forget.

  10. Once you master using a single flash stick with a single flash, resist the call to complicate things with more speedlites. Keep it simple and focus on moments, experiences, and people – not gear.

  11. I suggest investing in good wireless triggers over more lights. Once you ‘get it’, then go wireless …

This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 66. Missing this issue in your collection? You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: