DaveMazz Photography

Obsessed with Photography

DaveMazz Photography - Obsessed with Photography

Easy One Light Portrait using Specular Highlights

This is a quick post on creating an easy one light portrait using specular highlights. It only takes a few minutes, and you will get great results.  The trick is using specular highlights.  Most of the information in this post I learned from Strobist, which in my opinion is hands down the best site on the web to learn how to light photographs, especially if you are using speedlights.  This is a quick and easy tutorial that anybody with even the smallest amount of gear can perfect.  After I made a few portraits using just a few pieces of inexpensive gear, I was hooked on portrait photography using off camera flash.  Come check it out….

Let’s start with what you’ll need:

  • shoot through umbrella
  • light stand and umbrella bracket
  • semi reflective background

And……that’s it.  You can get the umbrella, light stand and bracket here for less than 40 bucks.  For the background, I just used some white poster board spray painted black, but anything semi-reflective will work.  The key to this technique is to angle your one light source (shoot through umbrella), so that it reflects off the background, while also lighting your subject.  This is often called specular highlights.   The effect is that you will have separation between your subject and your background, without having to use a separate light source for each.  The angling can be a bit tricky at first, but once you have it down, it becomes second nature and a very cool, professional looking technique to add to your repertoire.  The specifics below….

Easy One Light Portrait Setup - Back View Umbrella

Setup shot, take note of the position of the umbrella relative to the chair.


I’m starting out with a few of the setup shots.  The first one on the right was taken in my home studio aka our sun room.  I almost always use this room as it has great natural light during the day and high ceilings which is good for the tall light stands.

Easy One Light Portrait Setup - Side View Umbrella

Setup shot from a different angle, easier to see the tilt and height of the umbrella.

As stated above, I’m using a piece of cardboard poster board which I spray painted black.  it’s attached to a light stand with a clamp.  I have my camera slightly to the left of the subject, with the other light stand and flash to the right of the subject.  Notice how the umbrella is pretty high and pointed down.  the umbrella isn’t actually pointed at the subject, it’s above and slightly camera right.  This umbrella positioning is the key for this type of portrait shot.  You are essentially lighting both the background and the subject with the one light source.  As pointed out on the Strobist blog, it’s easier to set up the lighting position before you put a subject in front of the camera.  Pick a position for the umbrella, step back and shoot the background to see the specular highlight.  The specular highlight is just a fancy name for the reflection of the umbrella on the background, AKA light.

Take a look at the setup shot to the left, this should help you with the setup a little more.  It will take some practice to get just the right look.  Once you have it down though, it’s a great “trick” to keep in your bag.  I’ve just started to really understand the technique.  I have to admit, when I first tried it out, it was frustrating.  I just couldn’t get the right angle to light both the subject and the background.  One of the great things about digital photography is you can just keep on experimenting until you get it right, and learn a hell of a lot along the way.

I love that shooting a well-lit portrait shot doesn’t have to cost a ton of money.  I’m using a Nikon D90, which goes for about 400 bucks used on EBay, and you can buy a speedlight that has everything you need for off camera flash for well under 100 bucks on Amazon.  Other than those one time costs, lighting equipment doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars to get nice results.

Take a look at the finished portrait at the bottom.  It’s just me in a tee-shirt looking tired from a long day, but look at the light.  It’s all done with one speedlight and a DIY reflector, AKA white poster board that I’m holding in my right hand.  Check out the discussion on Strobist for more information on the technique.  There are some really great shots of this technique on the Strobist site too.

Once you get down this technique, you can start building on it with other lights, for say a kicker or rim light.  if you really want to learn how to light just about anything, buy Light, Science and Magic.  Excellent book that explains lighting in laymans terms.





Easy One Light Portrait - Finished Shot DaveMazz Photography

Also Nikon D90, 1/200, f5.6, SB700 camera left, 1/8 power zoomed to 85mm. DIY reflector camera left.





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