Simplify Your Lighting

I recently received a call from a commercial photographer who was to visit my city on assignment. Along with recommendations for assistants, digital techs and hairstylists, he also inquired about renting a basic lighting setup. "Only four or five packs," he said, "and maybe just eight or 10 heads." He would be bringing some more of his own, after all.

Much to my chagrin, I had to confess that the thought of taking that many lights on location didn’t often occur to me. Thinking of them as "just eight or 10" made me feel that surely I must be a miserable failure. After all, I had seen this photographer’s portfolio of product and lifestyle photographs, and he did good work. What must I be missing if I don’t use a dozen lights by default?

As it turns out, I’m not missing much at all.

While there’s a growing trend in high-end advertising and editorial photography to use lots of lights, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that just a few sources—maybe as few as one or two—can be all a skilled photographer needs to craft a polished picture. So before you remortgage your home to acquire enough strobes to hop on the bandwagon, consider reverting back to the basics by simplifying your lighting.

Sharpen Your Lighting Skills With Our Portrait Lighting Essentials tutorial

It used to be that photographers would stage lots of lights just in case they eventually were needed to refine a shot. But more often than not, assistants are busily deploying double-digit sources in every setup as a matter of course. Perhaps it stems from our collective desire to put on a show for our clients; that’s certainly a good enough marketing reason to use several lights. Location portrait photographer Seth Resnick told me a story a few years back about using lots of lights for that very purpose.

"I was doing an advertising shoot," Resnick explained, "and the art director starts out by telling me that essentially they’d done the same shot last year with somebody else. I decide that I really want to light the shot with one light, and it’s gonna be awesome. I’m going to go with a longer exposure and flash fill. The art director decides that the only way this can be done is with lots of lights. We get to a point where I realize this guy’s got his mind set, it’s a big budget at stake, there’s another shoot coming up, and I know no matter what I do, unless there’s a lot of lights, he’s not going to be happy. So I instruct the assistants, we set up 16 heads, and I put everything on a tenth-of-a-second delay. And the art director says, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this because it can’t be done any other way.’ It’s pointless to say to someone like that, ‘Well, you’re wrong.’ I show him the image, he’s thrilled, it’s my kind of lighting, it works, and it’s a show. If they want the show, they can have the show."

Theatrical agendas aside, isn’t there room to buck the trend and go for simplified lighting while still producing polished, highly refined images? The evidence points to yes.

Take action-sports shooter Scott Markewitz. "I was driving across Utah earlier today," he tells me, "and I was thinking about exactly this. I like to work efficiently, and I usually bring a minimal amount of lighting on a shoot. My goal is to minimize the setup and keep things rolling, and still get great lighting results. I’ve always thought of it as painting light into the shot, but I just thought of another analogy. It’s like some great rock bands that have only three members, but still put out an incredibly rich, full sound. They get sound out of just three people; the White Stripes did it with two. It’s the same thing with lighting; it’s all waves. Light waves, sound waves—you use too many instruments, or too many lights, and it can start to become noise."

As many photographers know, nothing is as complicated as making something look simple, and when it comes to product photography, simple is what matters the most. Photographers like Scott Markewitz and Martin Wonnacott, whose work is pictured here, are some of the best at what they do because with a minimal amount of gear they can capture ordinary people, places and things in visually exciting ways. Wonnacott’s captivating portfolio of fine-art still lifes, for example, employs a bare-bones approach to lighting his subjects that enhances natural form and texture without drowning the entire scene in illumination. This minimal take on design keeps the eyes of his viewers right where his clients want them: on the product.

Markewitz, who works with Broncolor strobes (usually no more than three or four), says it all comes down to having a deep understanding of how to modify light, bend it to your will and do a lot with a little. He wants detail and texture, and too many lights can muddy the waters and undermine his agenda. He understands exactly what he wants to do with light and deploys each source with a specific purpose. History is full of classic portraits made this way, even with just one light; consider the sunlit ambience of an Avedon portrait or a precise butterfly pattern from Hurrell’s Hollywood glamour portfolio. One light, used just right, can tell quite a story.

Outdoor photographers and those who shoot athletes in motion, as Markewitz does, have a very practical reason to keep their lighting to a minimum: It makes travel and setup much easier. It’s also helpful to keep the shoot flowing smoothly instead of devoting precious minutes to tweaking a number of sources. But what if you’re shooting in the studio, with a subject that won’t move an inch? Studio still-life photographers also demonstrate a reason to keep lighting simple: It can communicate more clearly.

Product and beverage specialist Martin Wonnacott has 10 Profoto packs and more than two dozen heads at his disposal. Sometimes he uses lots, other times only a few. The key, he says, no matter what you’re shooting, is to create light that appears simple and natural—even when it’s not.

"Lighting should feel natural, however it’s applied," Wonnacott says, "be that a complex setup in the studio or on location. That doesn’t always mean to use one light only, but that should be the aim to achieve visually. What you shouldn’t feel is that someone has turned on everything that they have at their disposal. Natural—even if it’s an unnatural situation—that should always be the aim."

A meaningful understanding of light is crucial whether you’re working with several sources or just a few. With many lights in play, it ensures that the photographer isn’t working against himself or herself by having lights in conflict, casting counterproductive shadows and highlights throughout a scene. Shooting with lots of lights isn’t a remedy for poor technique; in fact, with many sources, the flaws are amplified.

But simple lighting isn’t all that simple either. Take studio food photographer Togashi. He’s as much of an old-school perfectionist as you can get, preferring 8×10 film until fairly recently and eschewing fads and trends in favor of classically beautiful—and meticulously crafted—lighting. According to his agent/wife Eileen Togashi, he usually accomplishes this with just two or three Comets.

"If y
ou were to come into the studio, you may be shocked," she says. "He uses top-of-the-line camera equipment, but his set—he uses very little. It’s what he’s always done. We’ve been in business 35 years now, and he’s very pleased with his results, as are his clients. We, too, have been a little intimidated when we see in some of the professional magazines what other photographers’ sets look like. For the client, it clearly is very impressive. We don’t put on a show there. That’s not where his show is. The show is in his pictures.

"Whatever happened to simplicity?" Mrs. Togashi continues. "He doesn’t add a light to get it just right. He tweaks with other things in order to make the highlights look delicious or to bring out a beautiful edge. Those are some of the tricks of his expertise and years of experience instead of a light. You can achieve light without lights.

"He wants to create something simple and beautiful," she adds. "That’s his internal sensibility. And he doesn’t need a whole lot in order to achieve that."

Togashi certainly doesn’t use simple lighting to settle for plain images; his photographs are gorgeous and sumptuous—and the product of only a couple of lights. He doesn’t sacrifice shape or line, texture or detail. Neither does Markewitz compromise his approach with limited gear. He can create separation with a single kicker or enhance texture with a light positioned just so. Wonnacott and Resnick clearly aren’t afraid to strip down to a minimal kit to achieve a maximum effect, and these are world-class photographers shooting with big budgets and practically limitless lighting resources. If they can do it, why can’t you?

The next time you feel like you just can’t pull off a good shot without additional lights, think back to some of the most beautiful illumination you’ve ever seen. Chances are good that it came from a single, ever-present source: the sun. And then remember that age-old adage, priceless advice for all of life’s difficult situations: Keep it simple, stupid.

William A. Sawalich is a frequent contributor to DPP. In addition to being an accomplished professional photographer, he’s an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. See more of his work at

How To Work With Just One Light

A few modifiers and a little know-how can turn a single light into beautiful illumination

Before you start adding sources to "improve" your lighting, consider using modifiers to sculpt the light. With a few basic tools and a little know-how, you can create amazing images with just one light.

Use a bare bulb. With no modifiers in play at all, a bare-bulb light source will be omnidirectional (helpful for lighting every surface in a confined space) and specular. That means your one bare-bulb light can act as an edge light, key light and fill (as it bounces off surfaces within a scene) depending on where it’s positioned. In this way, a bare bulb acts much as the sun does in a clear blue sky.

Chimera Snapgrid

Add a reflector. The addition of a simple silver dish-style reflector (be it just a few inches in diameter or up to a foot or more) will maintain the hard-edged direct-sunlight characteristics of a bare-bulb source, but it will focus that light in one direction. This is a great way to harness all of the illumination from one source and focus it more intensely in one place (allowing you to shoot at a smaller aperture), and it minimizes the scatter that would occur otherwise. This allows you to control more precisely which surfaces are lit and which ones remain in shadow. A white-dish reflector is slightly softer than a silver dish would be.

Focus the light. Many light modifiers are designed to create a narrow beam. A snoot gives you a tight, round spot with a hard edge, which is a great way to emulate a theatrical spotlight and to create graphic compositions by positioning the subject within a perfect circle of light. Grid spots also create a focused, round beam of light, but with softer edges and varying degrees of narrowness. They come in handy for environmental portraits when balanced with ambient background light, as does a beauty dish, which creates an attractive, softer light than a dish reflector alone. It also adds a touch of hardness and definition that keeps portraits from appearing too bland.

Use a gel for color. A little bit of warmth is usually a very flattering touch to people photos. The best way to accomplish this is to gel your light source with an amber or orange gel, like a ¼ or ½ CTO (Color Temperature Orange). A full CTO gel will really warm up a shot, and with a hard light source at a low level, it becomes a great way to emulate the beautiful glow of sunset light. If you’re photographing a product or other subject in which another color could help tell the story—say, with a cool blue hue representing a cool temperature—consider adding gels in any number of other hues as well.

Photoflex OctoDome

Soften the light. A softbox or umbrella is an ideal way to turn a hard-edged specular light source into a softer, more wraparound illumination. It’s the lighting equivalent of an overcast sky. Softer shadow edges and more detail within those shadows make soft-light sources a favorite for anyone who makes portraits for a living, and it’s generally a great way to hide flaws and minimize texture in any number of subjects. Soft lights are simply less contrasty and, therefore, often much less dramatic than specular sources. A single softbox is a great way to create beautiful portraits from a variety of lighting positions. Add a grid to the softbox to keep light from spilling onto the background or other elements in a scene, or switch to an umbrella to create more scatter and light a larger area.

Position your source and subject carefully. Because light falls off exponentially the farther it gets from the source, smart photographers can harness this "inverse square law" to turn lots of different looks in a one-light portrait. For instance, placing a subject directly in front of a white background, with one light source far away, will create a light, white background, which you might expect. But move the subject far from the background and close to the light, adjust the exposure accordingly, and you might be surprised to see that white background rendered pure black. This is a powerful tool when working with one light.

Break the rules with a frontal ringlight. The specular, hard-edged illumination from a ringlight (the flash tube literally forms a ring through which the lens is positioned) breaks the rules by creating a purely frontal light that normally creates unflattering, shadowless illumination. But the ringlight is no simple frontal light, and it creates a rim of shadow surrounding the subject that can help create the appearance of separation and depth, and most importantly, create an interesting image infused with energy and drama—with just one light.

Required Reading

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

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