Single, Small Light Source (sort of)

How many times have you heard a photographer or photography supplier say, “Oh, to get a good portrait you need strobes/flash/hot lights.”? Or maybe you have just read a few books about portraits and you see all the diagrams with snoots and gobos and umbrellas and big light sources. I am here to tell you that you don’t have to have a bunch of expensive equipment to get great shots.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there is no need for all kinds of different equipment. But do you have to have it to get the shot? Nope. Joe McNally said in both his books that to get something you have to give something and that’s very true.

Keep reading to see how I got this shot with just a 40watt light bulb in a 20 year old bedside lamp.
In the shot above I had my model, Lynn, lit only by an old bedside lamp with a 40watt bulb in it. All the windows in the room were blacked out and a black backdrop over that. I had the camera set to ISO 200, ¼ of second at f4.5 at 57mm and of course I was using a tripod. By doing the fairly long exposure I was able to capture the subtle shadows across Lynn’s face and still light her eyes. See the diagram below.



What I had to do was have Lynn hold very still and look right into the lens. Now I could have pulled this off with a speedlight or two and cranked up the exposure time to say 100th. Then you have to balance the light, take time to set everything, test shoot and retest and reshoot… But if you are patient and take the time, you need very little light. Just remember, little light equals long exposure.

In Lynn’s image above I was able to get a good key light reflection in her eyes because she was almost facing the light. Not the case with Amy’s shot below.

I wanted to cast more shadow across Amy’s face and I wanted more of a hair light look (not in this frame). That meant moving the light behind her. But that presented a problem, how to get the catch light in her eyes. I had to go out and get a light. Now being the cheap bastard I am I wasn’t going to buy a speedlight/hot light or strobe, after all I am working with a 40watt bulb here! SO what is the next best thing that will give that warm glow to the face? A $0.99 Bic Lighter. Yes I cheated; I used 2 light sources. The lighter is camera right, just in front of her face and at that speed provides a nice glow to her face. See the diagram below.


Now with the setup for Amy obviously I was using a tripod. The camera was set to ISO 200, 125mm, for 1 second at f5.6. Yes it took a full second but like I said above, the light is there, you just have to wait for it. [Note: these were shot in the same studio, with identical setups but on different dates]

Until next time, Happy Shooting!