How to Shoot One Light Dramatic Portraits on Location by Yourself

Many of us know what it feels like to have or want to do a strobed on-location portrait without the benefit of an assistant. In fact, many of the portraits that I believe to be my best were done without an assistant and only with one strobe. It's all about good strategy and proper planning gear/creative-wise. This video by the Slanted Lens does an excellent job preparing you on how to do this kind of shoot effectively. Read below to learn more.

According to the Slanted Lens:

This week on The Slanted Lens, I am in Maine heading out to Stonington to photograph fishermen. My goal with today's lesson is to show how you can get dramatic results with a single light and working on your own. I have no assistants with me, I am doing this all by myself. Julene is with me but she will only be shooting behind-the-scenes footage to show what I am doing. 

My Run and Gun Setup
I am going to use a Photoflex Triton on a stand with an Octodome that has a grid on it. The reason I choose this so often is that it is small and easy to move around. The footprint isn't very big and it also doesn't have a large dome on top that is going to get blown around in the wind. I will hang two Triton batteries from the stand to act as a weight but also to give me a backup as soon as I need one. I don't want to have to take several trips back to the car and we don't have a lot of time with these fishermen before the sun goes down. To add more weight to the stand, I am using a PhotoFlex RockSteady portable sandbag with a couple water bottles in each side. This is what I will carry around. 

Shooting Process
I am using a method of mixing one strobe light as the key with ambient light as the fill. I am only one person so I don’t want to move a strobe and a Fill light. I want to carry a strobe in one hand and a camera on a tripod in the other. This will make me mobile so I can move to the next setup without having to go back and get things. A Canon 5D Mark III with a Tamron 24-70mm 2.8 lens is my primary camera. I want to capture portraits and the background so this wider angle lens is perfect. My secondary camera is another Mark III on my hip in the Spider Holster; this one has a Tamron 70-200mm 2.8 lens to get nice close up shots. I will use a Pocket Wizard on the camera to trigger my light. I wish I had two triggers but when I put the secondary camera at my side, I would have knocked the trigger off the hot shoe. Moving the trigger from camera to camera slows me down a little but not too much. 

Camera Settings
First, I am shooting on Manual. It is very hard to balance strobes and daylight when on any other setting. I set my shutter at 1/60th of a second and then open the aperture up until I get a comfortable ambient exposure. I am using the open daylight to fill his face, then I add my Triton and dial it up or down until I get a nice highlight on his face. I am using a grid on the Photoflex Octodome so that I can keep the light more focused and not have the strobe reveal itself by spilling all over the dock.

I am not in love with this setup so I moved my first subject around to the corner of the building and reset my aperture. I want the background to be a bit darker here and I can control that with my ambient exposure. It is a bit of a dance though because I do not want the fill on his face to be too dark. To compensate, I will bring the light around and use a more frontal key light. 

I photographed several fishermen in this open light. This method of shooting for open shadows is easy to do and ideal when you are working alone with one light. I will post a new video of how I lit these portraits each week on so make sure you check back often to see them all. Until then, keep those cameras rollin' and keep on clickin'.

For sake of example, here are a few portraits (below) I have taken using only one strobe and in most cases no assistant to further support the fact that it can be effectively. All it takes is an understanding of flash output, light modifiers, shutter speed, and ambient light. Although, when possible, it is great to at least have a friend to help on set!

Behind the scenes using only 1 light, no assistant, and a battery pack

Post some of your examples below!

Douglas Sonders's picture

Commercial Photographer (mainly Phase One medium format digital) and filmmaker based out of NYC. Started a site called to spread stories about well-behaved and positive pitbulls. Love cars, 80s movies, dogs, and adventure. Free time is spent traveling, sleeping, adventuring, or working on my baby, a 1969 Mustang Mach 1.

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I definitely like to keep my lighting as simple as possible even when I have an assistant. Nobody should throw up a million lights just because they own them. Think about what the heck you're going for before getting to a gig.

Thanks for the share Douglas, for those who'd like the direct link to the article its here -

the 5th photo down, how did light this so perfectly even on all subjects? Composite or a very large softbox? I would think even if lit from left of frame you'd have to overexpose the left to properly expose the furtherest subject to the right, right?

I've managed that quite a few times with group shots with moderate size (120cm) octa by feathering it so the furthest person gets it full on but the closest is getting some of the spill but not blasted with the full light. Exposure turns out even this way but not perfect, but bang a popup reflector on the far side too and you can bring them up to look perfectly even with the close side.

large softbox. no composite

How large?
I'm thinking about purchasing a 32" softbox for full-length portraits of wedding couples and small groups etc.. And now I'm wondering if 32" would be to small A) to illuminate bodies in full-length and B) to create softly grading shadows.

I'm surprised the water bottles and batteries kept that stand in place. Wind by the shore can be pretty heavy. I guess because it's dusk the turbulence died down a bit.

I wish more photogs would really try to work with one light and get a handle on the nuance of one light setups before they move on to more lights. I see so many photogs on facebook post their multi-light setups and they just flood their subjects with light and there is no shadows, no drama. I like the simplicity of one light setups. Great examples Doug!

My submission. Large octabox

Always nice to go back to a one light setup and no assistants. Assistants do come in handy when there is a lot of wind. Nice images!

THANK YOU! This was a great reminder that it's still OK to shoot with one light and still get great results!! A great turorial as well...thank you!!! Now I feel comfortable sharing two images from this summer (I cant get a photo to upload here ?? ). I used a 26" RapidBox and Nikon SB-910.

Started with only being able to afford one light... bought a bunch of lights, still only try to carry one light. This shot is a single speed light into a 30" silver umbrella and no assistant.

Shot with a NIKON SB910 in a 26" Rapid Box Octa.

nice. looks like more than 1 light

Do you have more photos shot with the Rapid Box?

This is excellent. Very well done!

glad you like it!

Ever shot in my port on here is 1 light set up 8 of them with just a westcott 43in octobox and a cheap strobe head from ebay but ill share a recent shoot too just for fun

One light camera right. 47" octabox on an Alien Bee B800.

My One Light Setup

Canon 6D+50 f/1.4
24" Softbox with Canon 430EX

This is a "one light + ambient + no assistant" done in the store of this indie fashion retailer and owner. I used an eBay 30" octa umbrella softbox and a Pentax speedlight. Gabrielle Neveu, Toronto, October 2013.