The Wonderful World of Single Light Set-Ups

Dec 23, 2013

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The Wonderful World of Single Light Set-Ups

Dec 23, 2013

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We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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As a photographer, it is very easy to get carried away, it was just this morning I read something on a mainstream website where this guy had posted a photo then gone on to explain how he had lit it. Using 6 speedlights, on each flash, he had some kind of funky and fancy adapter. I could not help think that, the reason for taking the image in this was more a technical reason than anything else.

Simple is good, Simple is key.

The Wonderful World of Single Light Set-Ups

Master the basics, and only add in lights when you have no other choice. – Here is my blog about single light set ups.

Here is an instagram of a single light set up:

photo (5) - Copy

I should point out, that yes, there is an Ice Light in this shot, this is to aid focusing and pupil size. This room was quite dark and I wanted a very natural eye, so adding some constant light helps, but, since I was shooting at f22 and 1/125th or something, this was only a modeling light in this instance. But this does show my go to lighting set up when I want a classic butterfly light. For those interested, this is great video interview lighting set up too !!

This set up would give you a shot like this:

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 10

Lighting & Set-up

For a long time, I have always loved simple and elegant lighting solutions. As the clients get bigger, the stress gets higher and the need for simple, trusted lighting set ups gets even more important. We won’t cover it in this blog here, but if you want a great guide to the basics of lighting for people, Photographer Christian Hough wrote a great guide for the Bowens Litebook a few years ago. You can find it here on pages 30 onwards. You can check out just how amazing Christian is here.


Bowling for Soup had been a major band in my life for a number of years, since I was a little wannabe be punk kid with jeans so baggy I almost needed two belts to keep them up. It was like meeting and photographing my idols at the same time. I had the added pressure of my brothers sons first birthday the same day. I knew that it was going to be a very fast set up, little no test shots and in some very random location, but how little time and how random was yet to be seen…

This was the very situation where knowledge of single lighting set ups comes in handy. There was no room for loads of lights, the room was an dull vomit yellow color and had a very odd smell. But, it was our location.


The lighting set up was something I gave very little pre-thought to, as I knew exactly want I wanted, I knew the story I wanted to tell. I just packed the biggest soft box I had and placed it as close to them and the camera as I could. The last thing I needed was to worry about a funky, complex lighting set up. I didn’t know what I had on location until I got there, so packed very light, very small and packed for a single light safe option. I had about a 4 min set up time in the end. The whole shoot was over in about 15 minutes. I took about 25 frames in total.

Dave Kai Piper shooting Bowling for Soup -4 Chris

Dave Kai Piper shooting Bowling for Soup -3 Gary

Dave Kai Piper shooting Bowling for Soup -2 jaret

Dave Kai Piper shooting Bowling for Soup -1 Erik

Lighting & Set-up

  • 35in Square softbox in front of the subject with a 400w Nano light
  • Distance light is from Subject – 1.5 meter, Distance to subject – 1.5 meter
  • Pentax 645d, 90mm, 1/200 @ f20, iso200
  • Chris Burney, Gary Wisemen, Jaret Riddick, Erik Chandler (top to bottom – Bowling for Soup)

(I should out that Kate James saved me on this day…. thank you for having a finding a trusty working lighting plug… as we know in the UK as a kettle lead)

You can see the full blog here.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 01

Lighting & set up

The Photo above was shot with a single speedlight using an Orbis ringflash modifier. I had it pretty much faced away from the model with only a hint the light falling direct on the model.

We used an SB910, which is pretty powerful for a speedlight, but still, we had to have the flash very close and almost in shot to get f22 and the depth of field. Getting the light nice and close, keeping the power nice and high is a great way to get those killer highlight reflections on the lips and eye shadow.

Why Single Light?

For me, portraits are about story, communication and single elements of narrative. In my eyes, this means single light set ups. The last thing you need when photographing non-models, models or even rock stars, is them to walk into something and feel uncomfortable. Lots of lamps, cables and stands just distract from the shoot and take away the energy levels that you are trying to work with. The more you can channel the attention of the subject into the camera, the more you are going to capture. This is why I love single light set ups. Honest lighting for honest images. I think there is a very real danger and a upcoming trend of over lighting subjects.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 12

Lighting & Set-up

photo (1)

This image is another single light set up, you can see another light in the background lighting the white backdrop, this is I guess is really a double light set up, but only one light would be on my subject. White poly boards are totally amazing. I wanted show this photo as an example of a studio set up of a great portrait set up when you need a crisp white background.

The increase of the ‘single-light set-up’ in my work, was due to the lack of a studio space in the beginning. With no car, where ever I was shooting, I have had to travel to work using trains or buses. I had to pack down, travel, set up, shoot, break down and carry stuff home.

photo (3)

Taking loads of lighting has always seemed like hassle to me and just something that was totally impractical. Not to mention all I could afford was cheap starter studio kit lighting.

Shooting on a super tight budget and having to carry my kit everywhere makes you really think about what you need, and how many things you can use the kit you do have for different effects. If I cannot personally carry my camera and lighting kit to work, I sometimes think I am using too much these days.

I have come very used to working with the smallest, lightest, kit I can find. This is especially true for my personal work. On my website I have a gallery of portraits. All of these shots are just a single light set up. As with pretty much anything visual, personal opinion is always subject to many things, but as I look about the world today, the biggest thing people are doing, is over thinking and over lighting portraits. The amount you can do with a single light is incredible. Both of the shots below are just lit with a single light.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 15

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 07

Lighting & Set-up

  • 35in Softbox facing subjects
  • Distance light is from Subject – 3 meters
  • Model – Tara & Verity / Make up by June Jocelyn
  • Top Shot: Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 23.3, 1/30th @ f13,iso 200
  • Bottom Shot: Pentax 645d, 55mm,1/55 @ f11,iso200

I think of things this way, the less natural light added to an image the better. The less modified the light, the more natural. Even before adding powered lighting, you have the ambient light to work with. Simple is always best.

Have a play about, watch how light works, work with the shadows, use things to block light or add light. The shot below is a mix of a few things, but on only a single strobe light is used. Mixing Flash and ambient can be tricky but rewarding when you get the hang of it. When we was shooting, I had noticed the light was super bright outside and a small column of light was beaming though the studio, so… we just used it as a rim light and added lighting from the front. The rest of the lighting was done in a digital way using the colour look up modes in Photoshop.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 02

Lighting & Set-up

Any lighting created, or added to a an image, must in some way add to the story of the image. I would use the Key Light (brightest light) to highlight the key element of the story (image), then if needed, a fill light to bring in other elements for visual detail or impact. Do note that not every image need the eyes to be the brightest or the face.

Use the lighting to tell the story – Reflectors work in the studio just as well outdoors. Sometimes setting up a single light and a reflector is fast and will get you want you need in a simpler way. My key light would be a strobe light or constant with a reflector being my fill light. I find this give a very natural lighting effect that emulates the natural word.

Remember you can use a reflector to block light just as much as use them to add light back into images.

This image is an interesting one. It was of course lit with a single light, and again my trusty 400w nano head, I have a super secret modification method of sticking my jumper via sticky tap to the outside of the diffusion panel, I then remove some of the panel letting the bare bulb shine though. It gives this effect.

photo (4) - Copy

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 16

I think it is a pretty neat trick. I guess it is just like making a gobo. For constant lighting. The really cool thing here is to play about with the placement of all the elements for some exciting shadows.

The Bowling for Soup portraits are lit with my ‘go to’ lighting set up. It could not be more simple. Close , soft, even and beautiful. We get this effect by having super large light sources that wrap around the subjects. I try and get my light source at least a meter about the eye line, then have the softbox as big as I can, but not having the tip of the light lower than the eye line. This will give me an even light, but not ruin my shadow under the chin. A 90 inch softbox is perfect for this, round, square, octobank… it’s all the same pretty much but will affect your background and the amount of wrap you have around the subjects face. I like the square, but the catch lights are then square. it’s a trade off.

I know Joey L likes Octobanks to get a more natural catch light, I like the deep square so I can play with the feathering of the edge. Have a play and see what works for you. This is the lighting set up I used in a clearer image.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 11

Ten points to think about when using single light set-ups on portraits:

  1. When you are shooting single light set ups, you need to remember to keep things simple.
  2. You can create some great shadows.
  3. Watch out for hotspots from the lights
  4. Try and mix your added light to the ambient light
  5. Using large modifiers can help spread light
  6. Try and keep your lights above the eyeline of your subjects
  7. Either shoot with your light very flat onto your subject or past a 45 degrees angle
  8. Work with the distances. Subject to light source – for the hardness of the shadows & light
  9. Experiment with by shooting 45 dgress to the light source
  10. Move your subjects, not your lights to fine tune the lighting.

Tiny adjustments make significant impact

If we have a look at these three shots of Tara, all are very simple set ups, with tiny lighting adjustments.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 21

Shot A Lighting & Set-up:

  • 35in Square softbox 45 degrees to subject 2 diffusion panels
  • Distance to subject – 1.5 meters
  • Pentax 645d, 90mm, 1/125 @ f18, iso100
  • Model – Tara Newton / Make up by June Jocelyn

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 19

Shot B Lighting & Set-up

  • 35in Square softbox 45 degrees to subject 2 diffusion panels + flag to stop light hitting background
  • Distance to subject – 1.5 meters
  • Pentax 645d,
    90mm, 1/125 @ f18, iso100
  • Model – Tara Newton / Make up by June Jocelyn

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 20

Shot C Lighting & Set-up

Shot B is a moody shot with the light coming over my right shoulder with a large softbox with the black side of a reflector blocking the light from lighting up the background. This is known as flagging the light. You can see this in shot A too. If you compare shots all the shots, the lighting is very similar with very slight adjustments. Have a play about moving your subject and your own camera position to see how many different lighting set ups you can make.

In pretty much every case, you can move your subjects faster than moving your lights. Being confident and giving direction can help you go from shot to shot.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 18

Lighting & Set-up

Constant lighting is a bit of a buzz word at the moment. In the shot above, we used a LupoLux light with some barndoors to get this shot. I was loaned the LupoLux for a couple of days. It was fun to play about with, but, I think I am a not quite sold on them yet. Next to Kinoflo or Profoto, they didn’t really feel like Pro end gear. That is not to say they are bad lights. The rule that I like to work to is that you should try and work with the kit you feel most comfy with.

Dave Kai Piper - Single Light Set up Blog 14

Lighting & Set-up

Dave Kai Piper shooting Kristina Labhan-1-2

Lighting & Set-up

  • 400 Nano with a Bare Bulb raised to high on a 2 meter stand and bounce of a ceiling
  • Pentax 645d, 90mm, 1/60 @ f10, iso200

About The Author

Dave Kai PapierDave Kai Piper is a UK based Fashion & Portrait Photographer. As well as being a Pentax Ambassador, Fuji X-Photographer, 3 legged thing & Lexar Ambassador, DKP works as a consultant though Ideas & Images for such companies as Future Publishing. DKP is also an Adobe Community Professional. Current projects include consulting on the UK’s flagship consumer and trade show, The Photography Show.
You can follow Dave on his Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

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23 responses to “The Wonderful World of Single Light Set-Ups”

  1. david d Avatar
    david d

    The square soft boxes look too small to be 90inches – that’s nearly 8 feet. It would seem centimeters is the proper unit instead of inches: 90cm ~ 35inches.

    1. udi tirosh Avatar
      udi tirosh

      yup, thanks for the heads up. we had an imperial/metric hiccup there.

  2. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
    Dave Kai Piper

    David D ! YES !! good
    spot !! _ will pass this on !!

  3. Dave Avatar

    Utterly pointless article. A lack of talent, riding on technology. And the shot of the model Juliette!!! How plastic do you want to make someone?

  4. Bella Avatar

    If you have a five grand plus camera, do you have to photoshop the images to death? Yuk! Only a really poor amateur would do that, surely

    1. Put up or shut up Avatar
      Put up or shut up

      I would say it’s probably because the client, that is paying for that equipment, wants it that way? Let’s see your work.

  5. D Kain Avatar
    D Kain

    Oh, how super! How confusing can you make something simple. ” I have a super secret modification method of sticking my jumper via sticky tap to the outside of the diffusion panel, I then remove some of the panel letting the bare bulb shine though.” Huh? This guy rocks up with grands and grands of equipment; makes simplistic photos, and then ruins them in photoshop. A cheap marketing ploy to promote third class work. A classic case of the Emperor having no clothes. Ten out of ten for ambition, minus several thousand for ability.

    1. You're weak Avatar
      You’re weak

      Where can we see some of your work? Being that you’re clearly the professional here…

  6. Kallekirschbaum Avatar

    I love how the bigmouthed “protogs” strike again. You guys are pathetic.

  7. Mark Stilwell Avatar
    Mark Stilwell

    It so easy to put a disparaging comment on an article these days, especially when you do not show a link to your utterly stunning work, its so awesome you wont show it to us D Kain, Bella,Dave & Kalle.
    It really is a shame that people like Mr Piper,who are out there every day, doing the work and achieving stunning results, being published ( i know his work from several Magazine publications) and being backed by leading brand names, they make the effort, they earn there bread and butter and they learned there trade the hard way, and you guys come along and put your tuppence in, for what its worth ~ i found Dave’s article to be very interesting indeed, and educational,and the final images stunning, i look forward to trying out some of Dave’s set ups and brilliant ideas.
    Thank you, Mr Piper.
    prey Continue, your work is Awesome!

    1. Ahecox Avatar

      I agree. Thanks for sharing your craft, as many like to keep it a secret, and showing samples through to finish. Whether you use photoshop or not is preference. It would seem the uninformed to speak of the use of digital tools when “traditional” photogs had used numerous darkroom techniques to get the look they were after. I’m not sure the language is supposed to be complicated or just vernacular. GObo seems weird when you don’t know what it is but then again so does aperture. I didn’t get it at first either but I brushed up on my terms and caught up quickly. Thousands of dollars of gear would be nice, however I believe these photographers could make it work with much less they just happen to have the ability to afford more. I too plan on trying some of these setups. I’ve included a photo straight out of my favorite travel camera, may it rest in its watery grave, the Sony NEX 5R. It was shot in black and white in camera. It was taken at a local park while conducting a photo class the summer of ’13. Feel free to comment about it.

      1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
        Dave Kai Piper

        Thank you !

  8. Jeff Ladrillono Avatar
    Jeff Ladrillono

    The one thing I would add to your 10 points is to experiment with not pointing your light directly at the subject and feathering the light to get a different quality of light. But yeah, good stuff.

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      Yes !!! fully Agree ! .. Bouncing light back towards a wall or even directly upwards can provide some great lighting.

  9. Jeffrey Guyer Avatar
    Jeffrey Guyer

    Great article, with lots of valuable information. Too many people (myself included many years ago) fall into the trap of thinking they absolutely NEED three, four, or six lights for “professional” results. A huge part of photography is learning to recognize challenges and figure out how to overcome them.

    To the naysayers in the comments– we all get that photography can be subjective, but just because you feel you CAN pick something apart, doesn’t mean you HAVE to. If you have a question or find something confusing, by all means ask. It’s a lot more constructive.

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      Thank you and yes… I would be more than happy to respond to open questions put in a nice manor. it is how we all learn.

  10. Matthew Wagg Avatar
    Matthew Wagg

    Awesome post and very inspiring. Thank you

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      Thank you Matthew !

  11. New to light Avatar
    New to light

    Dave, Thank you for the information! on your bowling for soup shots, would that set up be a possibility with a single strobe (nikon sb-900) with same size. softbox or would it be grossly underpowered? Not yet used to large strobes Thanks for any info and your understanding!

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      You could easly do this with one strobe. Just lift your ISO up.

  12. Dieter Kühl Avatar
    Dieter Kühl

    Brilliant work! I like the simplicity of the lighting setup and the great results!

    I have been struggling to balance heavy duty studio gear and the simple speed light setups. I think I have chosen to keep it simple, and will try out your techniques to see the results and will tweak it here and there. I am currently in the position of not having the luxury of owning (or not wanting to own) a car, and this will help me a lot in the future!

    Thank you for this article and the inspiration!

  13. Abiel rodney Avatar
    Abiel rodney

    interesting … i like this article .. giving me something to go home and work on !!! thanks … always used the rembrant lighting…

  14. Harvey Avatar

    In the photo of Erik Chandler, I don’t notice a reflection in his eyeglasses. How was this accomplished?