Skip to main content

One-Light Portrait Photography

Lesson 2 of 10

One-Light Basic Fundamentals

Dan Brouillette

One-Light Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

2. One-Light Basic Fundamentals


Lesson Info

One-Light Basic Fundamentals

Let's get started! So for me, like I said already once, the fundamentals are huge. When it comes to the fundamentals, the first thing I like to think about in any lighting setup, and this is true for any job, no matter how big or small, if it involves lights, my first thought is light quality. So, quick story: I lived in New York 2009, '10, '11, '12, to '13, and I assisted a lot of photographers. And one of the photographers I assisted, she's one of my really good friends. Her name's Victoria Will. She taught a class here last year or the year before. But we worked on alotta shoots, like hundreds of shoots together. And my only job, she ran the camera and got the job. My job was to do the lighting. And that was awesome for me, because being kind of a technical nerd, I like thinking about that stuff. But as soon as you have a subject in front of the camera or you have to have that relationship, you need to focus on them. And knowing that she had that part handled and that was her job, I...

could just mess with the lighting to make sure it was perfect. And any job that she got where I was in charge of lighting, the first, and this is true for any job that I'd get as well, my first thought is what quality of light do I want. Is this going to be a job that requires hard light? Is this gonna be a job that requires soft light? That's my first thought. Because one year I got hired to shoot team pictures for the Minnesota Vikings. Going through lighting diagrams in my head, instantly going to hard light. We have these football players. They're in full pads, they're on the field. That's not gonna call for a 60-inch umbrella with a diffusion. That's not gonna fit the mood, so I don't need to bring that equipment. I need to prepare for what I actually need, and that was hard light. So it's like alright, we're gonna use something like a magnum Reflector or even bare-bulb flash, and what am I gonna use to fill that type a light. So is it gonna be Reflector, or what else? So no matter what the job, light quality's always my first thought. My second thought is lighting position. I know I've covered this in other courses, but I can't say it enough: I believe there's three main things about your lighting position. One of 'em is the height of your light. And just specifically think about one light today. So lighting position is key in that alotta people who shoot natural light, our favorite time to shoot is either early morning if you're a morning person or that golden hour right before sunset. And the similarities between those two times a day are that the sun is in the exact same position in the sky. Both times, if you get one of those apps on your phone where it tells you sun angles, it's roughly 35 degrees above the horizon. So you know, if you're looking straight ahead, go 35 degrees up, that's gonna be your light position of the sun. And why you like shooting at that time is because of the light quality. I try and mimic that same angle when I'm shooting in the studio. So my lighting position is always at about that 35 degrees. There's times where you break the rules and you try different stuff. But generally speaking, that's my lighting position for my one, my main light. You know, if you start with your lights too low, you start to under-light people's chins and noses; that's not flattering at all. You get weird catch lights low in the eye that makes people look cross-eyed, not awesome. And if your light's up too high above that position, you're gonna start to lose catch lights, because brow bones, and eyelashes, and things like that will block your catch lights completely. So I like to start with that lighting position of the height. The next lighting position that I focus on is the angle of the light. You know, how much shadow do you wanna introduce to the face. Because with every light, it's gonna cast a shadow somewhere. So I always think in terms of a radius in front of my subject, with me being at the peak of that radius. So let's say I'm photographing you guys, and there's this light radius out here. The closer my lights are to the side, the more shadow it's gonna push. So then you start thinking about fill and all that type of stuff, and it always goes back to the purpose: why are you lighting this photo? Are you tryin' to get an upbeat mood? Are you tryin' to light something dramatic? And by choosing your light quality, you already are kinda halfway there. So I'm always thinkin' about my height, and then where my light is relative to my subject, and where that shadow's gonna fall, where are the shadow sides going to be. And then the next thing I think about is how I'm gonna position that light. Alotta lights have different qualities coming out of them, whether it's a big umbrella like this giant Profoto XL here, where it has nice, soft light. I like to position people near the edges so you get that wrap-around effect to really, you know. That's giving a soft light, so why not make it the softest possible if we're gonna go there. So I put people near the edges so you get that wrap-around effect, where if you're lighting somebody with a zoom reflector, or bare-bulb reflector, or somethin' like that, you wanna aim it right at them 'cause you're tryin' to get that specularity. You're not trying to feather and get soft light. So we'll use both of those and I'll show you how I do it. The photo here on the screen was just the bare-bulb. We're gonna recreate that look today on the white seamless with our model Jo and get something similar, only with a guy's perspective it. So it'll be a little different. The next thing I do is I meter. I have my light meter, it's sitting right here. I use it all the time, because I believe that having a sloppy photo adds a lot more work on the back end, where if you could just meter and get the exposure right in-camera, you'll save yourself a lot of time and headache of blown exposures, highlights, shadows, the whole works. So you'll see I'm always pullin' out the meter and takin' my trigger off my camera to meter. Because I just think that's really important and I love, when I tether, to see a nice, clean photo on the screen and not one that has to use a bunch of adjustments in raw. So if you can start there, you give yourself a lot more latitude for adjustments later. So moving forward, this is just a sample image. Another one, one-light portrait. This was, believe it or not, these two shots were the exact same light. I was holding the little Profoto B2 bulb. That one, I was just holding it over my camera. Exact, oh, whoops, went back too far. Exact same thing here. The only difference is black and white and he's sitting on an apple box. So it's the same light, and we'll show you how we move the light around to cast the shadow. 'Cause you can be really purposeful with where you're putting the shadow, you know, whether you want it at all or where you want it to go by just moving your light a little bit here or there. So we'll go over that. And then some about the equipment that I use. I'm a big fan of the Profoto stuff. As you saw, I had their logo up earlier. We'll introduce the equipment real quick. So one of the setups we're gonna use is with the Profoto B1's. In fact, I'm just gonna bring 'em out a little bit so they're out of frame for the next shot. This is just the silver deep umbrella; I think this is a medium. Yep. And it has, you know, when you're thinkin' about quality of light, silver means specular, and your white will be your soft light. So I wanna do the full range today, so were gonna go from this bare-bulb look to this silver look, where you have a larger light source but it's still pretty harsh. And then we're gonna move on to the other Profoto, which is the XL umbrella with the diffusion on it. So this is the same type a thing, but it's just a soft silver interior with this diffusion. So the light actually fires into the umbrella. The light bounces back through the diffusion fabric. Knocks off about a stop and a half, but it gives you a really nice, soft light. So we're gonna get the full range there. So I'm a huge fan of the B1's, because I'm not a huge fan of cords. I don't like cords running around the floor. I like to keep everything clean, because I'm looking through the camera the whole time, I don't wanna trip on things. And a lot of times when I'm shooting on location, or in someone else's studio, or anywhere where there might not be power, I don't wanna have to rely on there being this miraculous outlet out in the woods for me to plug a light into. I'd rather rely on my own batteries and be a little self-sufficient with the power. So I'm a big fan of the Profoto lights that have batteries, because then I don't have to worry about power. The other piece of equipment that I bring with me: soft light umbrella. So whether you use the Profoto ones, or also the Photek, they're a pretty inexpensive alternative. They open just like any other umbrella. They have the diffusion sock, similar to the Profoto, and they make 'em in 36, 46, or 60 inches. And at, you know, probably an average price of 90 bucks a piece, if you break one, it's not the end of the world. In fact, they just improved 'em and made fiberglass rods inside the umbrella so that it's even one less thing to break than bending the metal. So they're a solid alternative to the Profoto lights, and a little less expensive for a similar quality product. I also love zoom reflectors and magnum reflectors. For those of you not familiar, zoom reflectors, basically, this is just a seven inch reflector, but zoom reflectors'll have a different texture in here. They actually magnify the light. There's a zoom, oh, there's a zoom on the floor, here we go. Thanks John. (footsteps) They have a different texture where they actually magnify the light. And depending on how far you place this on the head of your light, it can focus the beam more or have a narrow focus or a wide focus; and there's a little guide here. But I love workin' with these to kinda give directional light using one light. And they also have grids that go on there so you can control it. Same with the magnum reflector, it's just a giant version of this. It's a good light if you're outdoors or somewhere where you're tryin' to mimic sunlight when it's not sunny. You can put a warmer gel on there, throw a magnum reflector up in the air, and you have yourself a fake sunlight. So that works really well, too. And then lastly, the beauty dish. Everybody knows what a beauty dish is. In case for some reason you don't, it is basically a 20-inch metal bowl of sorts. Big reflector, has a diffusion piece inside it. So it is indirect light; it bounces off the back a that, goes into the dish. And then this is a grid. I like to control my beauty dish. I don't like alotta light spill. We'll show you why when we get shooting. But the grid fits nicely inside the lip of your beauty dish. And a of the Profoto modifiers have grids specifically made for their size. So whether it's a seven inch reflector, a beauty dish, or magnum, things like that. Grids are awesome, and you can diffuse 'em and anything you wanna do.

Class Description

It's amazing what you can create with just one studio strobe. Editorial and Award-Winning photographer Dan Brouillette shows how to get amazing and different lighting with the simplest of gear. Whether on-location, or in the studio, he'll use one-light in a variety of different ways to create everything from soft and pretty looks to hard, edgy portraits. While taking advantage of a number of different lighting modifiers, and utilizing just one strobe- you'll have a strong studio on the go for your portrait photography. 


Ryan Redmond

I have mixed feelings on this one. I would still recommend it because the theory and explanations are solid and he gave a wide array of examples that show you the incredibly broad spectrum of results you can get with a given light just by changing distance and position. Having that general understanding of the fundamentals will be very useful. I'm a little bummed that he's using thousands of dollars in lighting for something that felt like it was promoted as an introduction or fundamentals class. I am a hobbyist and I am using speedlight and small softbox or umbrella combos that cost under $100, not 500 watt strobes in 60" softboxes or $1500 strobe and beauty dish combos. It would have been nice to see some examples with more basic equipment. I know the concepts will scale with some practice though, so the class was certainly still valuable.

a Creativelive Student

Fantastic little course. I knew a lot of this stuff already but still learned a couple things, too. I love seeing how different photographers explain the same things and Dan was crystal clear and highly effective. Glad I bought this course.


Brilliant course for beginners. Would like to have seen some comparative examples with slightly cheaper gear, but that is for the individual to experiment. The inverse square law theory of light was a great help to me.