How to use a one light setup for high-key portraits

In the first of our lighting tutorials, Martin demonstrates how to take a headshot on a white background using just one light.

Because I’m new to the Lighting Rumours team, I’d like to introduce myself before we start: My name is Martin Ziaja and I’m running a small photo studio in the southwest of Germany. Yes, that’s correct, Germany. So I’m no native speaker and thus, I pre-apologize for any future mistakes that may appear…

I am specialized in portrait photography or people photography in general. That means I shoot portraits, weddings, artistic nudes, documentaries, business portraits, maternity and kids and even pictures for passports and job applications.

Here on I will publish tutorials about lighting – artificial AND natural. And because I’m a fan of keeping it simple, we start today with our first one-light setup! My aim was a high-key portrait with VERY soft light and a bit of movement, lit by one single lightsource. There are several ways to achieve that, but for my first tutorial here, I took sort of an unusual approach. The result should look like this:

I positioned the lightsource, a speedlight in a 42″ shoot-through umbrella, right behind the model and used it simultaneously as a white backdrop. The aperture was chosen fitting this backlight, resulting in a nearly silhouetted model. All I had to do then, was to move the light and model closer to the white wall in front of her (where I stood), until the reflected light from the wall lit her appropriately. In my case I used a white seamless, but any other white wall in your flat or house works just as fine. In the following you see the lighting scheme:

As easy as it can be. I chose an umbrella because of two reasons: I wanted to have a larger lightsource for using it as a backdrop and a lightsource that spreads the light widely to get very soft reflected light.

A useful little hint: If you lower yourself and let the model look a little down to your lens, the reflected light seems to come from a bit higher position, shaping the facial features with soft shadows.

The wind in her hair was made by a normal reflector, held by my assistant – you don’t necessarily need a proper windmachine. A closer look at her eye reflection shows the photographer (a.k.a. me) and the reflecting wall behind him:

Try it – it’s really easy… And once you understand this bounce technique, it really helps to set up your next indoor shoots!

So, I hope you liked my first little tutorial here on! If you any questions, feel free to use the comment function below!

– Martin –