One-Light Studio Portrait

Often, the simplest things are the best. Here’s how you can replicate my go-to studio set-up to get flattering lighting and shaping shadow in your portraits.

One light, one reflector and a low camera angle: this is my go-to studio set-up. Here’s why I love it and how you can replicate it for your portraiture.

Setting up the soft box

I’ve got my main light source – a big soft box – to the left (as we’re looking at it) of Symone. I’ve asked her to stand with her body towards the light and her face brought slightly further around towards me. This is called the two thirds position. To achieve it, start with your subject’s face in profile, then bring it two thirds of the way towards being straight on to your camera.

When your subject is facing slightly away from your camera, then one side of their face will have more visible width than the other. If the more visible side is lit, this is known as broad lighting. It’s a lighting pattern that makes the face look wider, so is ideal for flattering people with narrow faces. If the side of the face with more visible width is in shadow, then this is termed ‘narrow lighting’. This is flattering for the majority of people, as it makes the face appear slimmer. Here, I’ve used narrow lighting

The soft box is high up and angled down towards Symone. This gives a flattering direction to the light on her face and torso while also illuminating her hair. When setting its position, I ensured it was just low enough to spill catchlights – white reflections – in both of her eyes.

Shaping darker skin with highlights

When photographing people with light skin, you create a sense of shape and depth to their features using shadow. With dark-skinned subjects, that shape and depth is created through the use of highlights. The mask of Symone’s face – the central oval containing her features – are in highlight, together with selected areas of her chest and shoulder.

I am bouncing a little fill light back in on the far side of the soft box, by using a large reflector to the right of Symone. It’s set slightly back and angled towards the camera. Without it, Symone’s neck and back would be completely dark and merge into the background. The reflector ensures there’s just enough light to stop this happening.

My camera is level with Symone’s neck; slightly below her face but above her chest. My camera is horizontal, so not angled up towards her. I have always loved this camera position, so you’ll see it a lot in my work. It’s subtly empowering and when used like this places the subject’s eyes on the top rule of thirds line, making for an effective composition.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 125mm
  • Aperture: f/13
  • Shutter speed: 1/200 sec
  • ISO: 100