One Strobe, Hold the Modifier: Crafting Portraits With a Single Hard Light

It's usually all about that sweet, soft light. Many of us portrait photographers probably would never even consider using a harsh, bare light without something to diffuse it, but Profoto and Pye Jirsa with SLR Lounge show you there is a time and place in this video tutorial that includes three step-by-step scenarios that teach you how to create dramatic photos with a single naked and unmodified strobe.

Photography is totally about the light, and we photographers need to bend, shape, and mold it to our will through the use of an endless and, let's face it, potentially ridiculously expensive assortment of tools, like umbrellas, beauty dishes, parabolic reflectors, softboxes, scrims, and bounce cards. A bare flash is usually equated to using the built-in on-axis flash from a cell phone or consumer point and shoot, which typically produces flat and brutally harsh results that accentuate sweat and every skin imperfection a human can posses.

Jirsa with Lin & Jirsa Photography shows us that it's not always the case. The key to making harsh light work is getting the light off the camera. 

So, why hard light? He says:

Hard light can be a little bit cumbersome to work with: you have very hard highlights, very deep shadows, not a lot of transition, and so you really have to work with posing. But the cool thing about hard light is that it can really chisel out your subjects in scenes that are very complex.

With that, watch the video and see what he is able to do with a single light. Now, it bears mentioning that in this case, he's using the game-changing Profoto B2 portable strobes with the matching Air Remote TTL trigger. That gives you upwards of 1000 feet of wireless workspace to pound out 250w/s of power. Yes, you can do this with regular speedlights, but keep in mind you many need upwards of 3 or 4 of them to achieve the amount of power required at normal light-to-subject distances. There are ways around that using flash composite techniques, but that's a story for a different day.

Want your own Profoto B2? You can get either the single-head "To-Go" kit or the dual-head "Location" kit and then add on the Air Remote TTL trigger for either Nikon or Canon.

Sean Molin's picture

Sean Molin is an award-winning photographer out of Indianapolis who specializes in weddings, portraits, travel, and live music photography. He has had work featured in galleries and in magazines ranging from Popular Photography to Rolling Stone.

Coming from web development and IT, he's as much a geek for the gear as he is for taking photos.

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one light = is almost all you need to get the job done!

great :)

Saw the tower and recognized the spot. Did a similar shoot there last year with costumers.

Very nice. Man, she looks so clean. Almost too clean, like she was shot in a studio and composited in from there. I read your description, though. Good stuff!

Thank you!

Ya Its a photo people have definitely questioned about. I think this image is best presented printed on canvas the separation is less pronounced and feels like a painting. Still one of my favorite images though so far.

Attached is the 3 images used in the image.

Looks great! Which light+modifier did you use for this?

I use the Profoto B1. They handle really well for location shooting having the battery built especially for around water. Key light was a beautydish and some fill to help the sun wrap around with a softbox.


Very nice image!! Which beauty dish did you use? I bought the Profoto White BD, but I am not happy with the results.

Thank you. I use the profoto white beauty dish for my work. I often have the grid on it but no sock. I'm interested in their new collapsible beautydish for location work like this though.

One more reason for hard light I didn't hear mentioned: wind. At least here in Nebraska, using most light modifiers is a good way to get equipment destroyed by wind, even when you have an assistant holding it.