How To Create A 3 Light Setup With Only One On-Camera Flash

Have you ever wanted to create a dramatically lit portrait but you have felt limited by your lack of camera gear?  Pye Jirsa over at SLR Lounge has just released a very technical video showing how you can accomplish complex lighting with just a single on-camera flash.  The results are pretty incredible, and I would have never thought these images were created with such a simple lighting solution.  

Perhaps the number one complaint we hear week in and week out from photographers is that they do not believe they can create professional looking images with the current gear in their bag.  The idea that you need thousands of dollars in lighting gear and the most expensive cameras in order to make a great photograph is like a cancer within the photography world.  Late last year Fstoppers released two videos showing how you can light both a beer bottle (product shot) and a model (beauty shot) with a few inexpensive speedlights and a few cheap light modifiers.  To my amazement, people still complained that any photoshoot requiring 3-4 cheap speedlights was still not "budget" enough, and others complained that the camera we used was too expensive because it was a top of the line DSLR. Photographers will always try to find excuses for mediocre images instead of taking what they already have and applying some well thought out photography instruction.  

Every now and then someone produces an educational video that puts all of these complaints to rest and really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the myth that great photographs require tons of lighting.  This month that video belongs to the guys over at SLR Lounge who have produced a photography lesson so well done that it even had me second guessing their claims.  

In the video above, Pye Jirsa shows how he often creates a three light setup with only 1 single speedlight.  The trick?  He uses a small grid on his flash, which helps him contain the flash's spill, and bounces that flash into a large off-camera reflector.  This is a technique every photographer uses in the studio but Pye takes it two steps further by introducing both a fill light and a 3rd "specular highlight" lighting source.


As shown in the photo above, the speedlight bounces into the main reflector and acts as a key light on the subject.  By placing a V-flat on the opposite side of his subject, Pye is able to kick, or fill-in some of the deep shadows caused by the main side light.  This fill light is pretty subtle because the V-flat is white and fairly matte in texture. The next trick Pye pulls out of his bag of tricks is what really makes this a clever lighting setup that everyone should memorize.  By using a second silver reflector, Pye is able to bounce a small amount of even brighter light back into the model simply by placing the reflector a little closer to the model (and light source) than the V-flat.  Since smoother and shinier surfaces always cast more specular light than a dull surface, this 2nd reflector helps give the image that extra pop of light.  You can really see the effect this light has on the model's abs on the dark side of the image.  

This entire lighting example is an except from SLR Lounge's Lighting 101: Mastering Lighting Basics.  While I have not personally watched this tutorial, I do know that Pye and the rest of SLR Lounge produce some of the best photography tutorials out there.  Thankfully they release little gems like this for free so we can all learn a few new lighting tricks. As someone who enjoys learning little studio lighting tips and tricks, I was pretty surprised to see how great these images turned out with just one on-camera flash.  My initially reaction would be to use multiple flashes with different large light modifiers to create this photograph but sometimes you can get the job done with a whole lot less and with a lot smaller budget.  

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

Log in or register to post comments

serious lighting chops for a single on camera flash

Really loved this video. You can do so much with just one light. I always tell this when I am giving a workshop. Before going crazy and buying 3 studio lights just get one light and use it in all the ways possible ! People are often amazed with what you can do with just a tiny little speedlight =) Thanks for the share Patrick ;)

The Slanted Lens did a fantastic one light demo

Thanks Patrick for featuring this tutorial, was a blast putting this workshop together!

Really useful but I would like to see this applied to travel photography. It looks like the set-up should be repeatable on a smaller scale when out in the field. Has anyone tried?

This is a really good tutorial, thanks for featuring it.

Excellent tips here for using modifiers to bring the budget down on lighting. This is also a great method to help build your understanding light and how to manipulate and control it. Thanks Pye.