Can You Have a Sustainable Photography Business With Just One Light?

Can You Have a Sustainable Photography Business With Just One Light?

We all know that you can make nice photographs with just one light. But is that sustainable at all? Aren't you too limited?

There's no formula for having a sustainable photography business. It all depends on your portfolio and how you show it to your potential clients. You can't have a profitable business without a good portfolio though. This is one of the approaches to keep the wheel going: create a variety of images. When I say "variety" I don't mean different subjects, but rather present different ideas. You can have several images of a beautiful girl in the park with a blurred background but if all of your gallery has only that type of photography, people can lose interest very quickly. The human eye likes to see different things and if you want to keep people watching your images, you have to provide a greater diversity.

Beautiful woman with glasses

I used one strobe with a standard reflector on camera right for this image. No soft light modifier was used.

One Light Is Old School?

I used to limit myself that having just one light doesn't give me the opportunity to produce captivating images, because I might need more lights. I thought impressing people would be only though complex lighting. These were the days when I was into the "Dave Hill look" when I thought the most interesting portraits could be only created with several lights creating unrealistic and conflicting shadows. At the same time one-light photographs were too conservative and casual to me.

Girls having fun

I used four images for the girls and two for the car on this image. I thought it was cool in the past and it surely is now, but I prefer more naturally lit images today.

Too Limited by the Light

Time went by and I found that light was just a tool to draw an idea, not the idea itself. I know this may sound as an obvious statement, but many times photographers think only about light and thus they are limited by light as a technique. This is like to only use wide open aperture and shallow depth of field and miss many other beautiful compositions with a deep field of focus. Pictures are like storytelling. You may like to use different pens, nibs, and inks but if you are telling the same story you will be a boring author.

Factory worker at Sensata

I used one softbox on camera right. All fill light came from the interior lights.

Story First, Lighting Second

If you keep the story at first place you won't be too much worried about the fact you have one or five lights. Look around on a sunny day. You are seeing various stories with your own eyes. How many lights are used to light those stories? Just one, the sun, but with lots of fill light coming from natural reflectors — the ground, buildings, trees, water, dust, etc. This means that you can tell most stories with just one light source and eventually a few reflectors.

A lawyer

A big softbox on camera right to provide the illumination for the whole scene.


If you're worried you can't have a sustainable business with one light, you should be worried you can't have a sustainable business with just one car. If you need to go off-road you will have to have a truck to be able to transport yourself and your gear. The truth is that you can do a lot with just your car and if you use it wisely you will save up for a truck. But are you sure you need a truck and not a minivan?

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Daniel Venter's picture

If I wasn't forced to shoot in a studio in winter I'd actually sustain a great business with NO lights :-)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I use a light, because sometimes clients want their photo on locations where light is not suitable :)

Michael McCray's picture

When I was studying photo-illustration at Kent States decades ago I met a man who did family portraits with a single light. He said I knew lot more about photography than he would ever know, however, he had put two kid through college and supported his family with home portraits business. He one of the men I admire for he understood what worked. Being good people and understanding what works for you is good thing.

William Faucher's picture

I mean, sure, you can shoot with one light. But the question is, why would you bother intentionally limiting yourself? A cheap speedlite goes for 30$ on amazon and delivers surprisingly good results. I agree, sometimes less is more, simplicity is key, not always a need for fancy elaborate setups.

But lighting is cheaper and more accessible now than it ever has been in history. Why not embrace it?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I didn't meniton if that light would be a speedlight or a Profoto with a large softbox. Some of the cheap lights don't last long if we're talking about supporting a business here.

As I said, it's not about the number of lights, but the ideas you are illuminating. Sometimes people decide to buy a more reliable light which costs more and this drains their budget quie quickly. In this case one light may not be a limit to them if they have good ideas.

Most of the time when I use multiple lights I try to mimic the sun (a single light). I use more lights just for the sake of imitating the different fill sources which means if you have enough light stands and reflectors (which usually takes more space than lights itself) you can do your job with one light source. This is only in case you're shooting something that mimics real-life light.

Well, one light and a backup :)

Doug Birling's picture

If you call yourself a business and charge appropriately, then you should have more than one light, more than one camera body, more than one lens, etc... be prepared for the unexpected!

A client doesn't want to hear "Sorry my one light stopped working, shoots over dude"