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Simple, one-light set-ups

Fashion photographer Brett Stanley demonstrates how to create bold, dramatic portraits — with only one light

8 October 2017

Fashion photographer Brett Stanley demonstrates how to create bold, dramatic portraits — with only one light.

As photographers, we rely on light to create our images; without it, we would just have black frames. In fact, ‘photography’ actually means to ‘draw with light’. We use light in different ways every day, and its manipulation is what allows us to give the same subject a different look without moving the subject. Think of landscape photography: the same scene can look very different over the course of 24 hours, and it’s all down to light.

The direction, colour, quality, and quantity of light are what give everything we see its specific look. Change any of these parameters, and you change the appearance of the subject — which is great, because it gives us loads of options when we want to get creative with our photography!

In this article, I want to show you two very different shots that I took, explain how I lit them, and then give you options for ways to recreate them using a few different tools.


My passion for photography comes from shaping light. I love being able to get creative with it to create a certain look, and my influences for this primarily come from cinema, in which lighting is used to create the mood of the scene. A lot of that lighting is artificial, but set up in such a way that it mimics the light that would be there if it were a real scene. For example, the light on an actor’s face that looks like it’s coming from a lamp in the room but might be off-camera. This is called ‘motivated lighting’ — it’s fake, but your brain believes it because it seems to be coming from somewhere that there could be a light source in real life.

Brett stanley
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 51mm, 1/160s, f/4.5, ISO 200

Shooting at night means that you can control the artificial light more easily than during the day, and in the photograph of skater Richie (opposite page), the main light source is off-camera right. It could be from a street light, or even the sun between some buildings, but is, in fact, from a small Speedlight strobe (or flash) mounted on a stand. This image was taken at night near the opening of a large tunnel in downtown Los Angeles. There was light from the nearby streets, but it wasn’t very interesting or bright enough, and I really wanted to capture Richie in this pose as he wrapped his wrist. I quickly set up my Speedlight with a remote trigger connected to my camera, so that it would fire when I clicked the shutter, and put it down the tunnel pointed towards him a little. I wanted to only light half of him to give the scene some depth, and I used a lower shutter speed to capture some of the ambient light to lift the shadows on his other side. The side light gave the image a nice contrast and balance, while it left the other side of the image darker, really drawing attention to my subject, which is what we want for all our images.

Brett stanley
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 48mm, 1/25s, f/5, ISO 800


If you don’t have access to a Speedlight or strobe, you could create a similar look with a bright torch or LED panel, and you could have a friend or assistant hold the light instead of a stand.

Another easy way to get this effect is to find a nice street light.


Creative lighting during the day with artificial light sources is harder due to the power of the sun. You need something very bright for it to have any effect in full sunlight, especially with Speedlights or strobes. For this image of Onrico (top left) it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was extremely bright. If I’d photographed him with just the sun alone, he would have either had harsh shadows on his face or had to look straight towards the sun, creating a rather flat lighting, which I wanted to avoid.

My solution was to treat the sun as one of my lights and bring in something artificial to fill in the shadows, in this case a powerful strobe with a large soft box. I could have used the sun as my main light, which was off-camera left, then had my strobe fill in the shadows, but that would have had Onrico looking at the sun again, causing him to squint and not be relaxed. So, I turned him around — this meant that the sun was above and behind the model, with my strobe and soft box off to camera left. The effect was a harsh light from behind, with strong shadows, and a very soft light in front softening the shadows and letting us see the detail in his (mostly) relaxed face.

Brett stanley
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 66mm, 1/200s, f/6.3, ISO 100


The strobe I used for this shot was a Paul C Buff Einstein, a very powerful flash that on full power could match the bright sunlight, but if you don’t have access to this, a very cheap option to recreate this lighting style is to bounce the sunlight onto the model’s face using a reflector. This works well, because it’s going to match the colour and intensity of the sunlight. A white reflector will keep the colour of the sunlight, or you can use a gold or silver reflector to warm up or cool down, respectively, the bounced light.

Looking into the reflected light for too long can damage the eyes, so have someone holding it who can turn it away when you’re not shooting to give the model a rest.

There are so many ways to modify light in a creative way — it’s all about being inventive and taking inspiration when it comes. Look around for the way light bounces and modifies naturally, such as off a shiny floor or through the branches of a tree. I warn you though, it is addictive!

Brett stanleyCanon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 51mm, 1/200s, f/6.3, ISO 100

Brett stanley
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 51mm, 1/200s, f/6.3, ISO 100


Einstein E640 flash unit
Canon Speedlite 580EX E-TTL II flash
Photoflex OctoDome3 large softbox
Matthews reverse light stand