How to Use One Light Overhead in Your Portrait Photography

In this simple lighting tutorial, I discuss how to create a soft and dramatic image by placing my light overhead.

About two years ago, I released a video on YouTube showing three ways to use a Parabolic Softbox and it is still one of my favorite lighting modifiers for portraits. Because a parabolic softbox, like the Phottix Para in the video above, is a large form of light with a lot of depth, it provides a lot more control over light compared to something like a shallow reflective umbrella.

Having that extra control allows me to accurately pinpoint the angle that I'd like to place my light in order to create subtle tones in my image. By using a 1-stop inner and 1-stop outer diffusion material, I can then soften the overall quality of light overall, leaving me with a very directional, but soft, light source that I can position as necessary.

In the video above, I show you a simple setup that you can use to create a very soft and dramatic portrait, by being particular with the placement of your light.

Log in or register to post comments


Previous comments
Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Great content. Thanks for sharing.

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thank you and thank you for watching / sharing. :)

Arun Hegden's picture

Simple and crisp,...Loved this one alot. Thank you Jeff for sharing. :)

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thank you and thank you for watching. :)

Michael Young's picture

Jeff needs to audition for NPR lol

Jeff Rojas's picture

lol I wish! I blame my cold... Maybe I should get sick more often. lol

stir photos's picture

Great article/video! To the point and great content. I wish I had saw this before the last time I rented studio space...

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thank you kindly. :)

Mikkel Bech's picture

Great setup - I've used it on several photos in my insta-stream - I'm sure you can guess which ones:

Bryan York's picture

Jeff, great tutorial and thank you for sharing your knowledge. How would you mimic and get the same effect using everyday house hold lamps or incandescent lights?

Jeff Rojas's picture

With better control and attention to the properties of light. :)

Martin Van Londen's picture

I'm going to try this set up next time I'm in the studio. But I might add some negative fill.

P.s. I love your minimalist approach to sound design.

Jeff Rojas's picture

lol as in a broadcasting microphone and music afterward?

wale ariztos's picture

Echoing what everyone has said- great tutorial.

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thank you so much! :)

Anonymous's picture

Some of these shots do look great, but some of them suffer with the soulless eyes of not having catch lights. Just kind of bugs me having been always taught that there must always be catch lights. Do you just not care (please not being rude, just you can't have a voice tone in text and the right wording has not come to my mind) or is there a reason why you would not have the catch lights in some of the shots?

Jeff Rojas's picture

Great question! So... these two images are of the same subject, framing, lighting, etc. The core difference (aside from color) between these two images is emotion. Does the catch light in the second image take away from the emotion you feel or does the fact he's in mid laugh (eyes halfway open) without a catch light taking anything away?

The answer is that it's subjective. In this case, I think I did a great job at capturing emotion even if it "failed" traditional portrait tests. :)

Anonymous's picture

Yeah like I said, just the way one is always taught, it is kind of like being for lack of a better reference right now "bible bashing" you get taught it is a must. Now with these two I think is awesome to have the emotion in it, but like the first photo where eyes are open with the glasses, I can't see, and with this whole upbringing of it being a must, it just got to bug me a little. Not because I think it is wrong, but it is against what a person gets taught.

Thank you for your answer :D

There really are times people do need to break away from what they are taught and try other things for sure.

Ryan Berman's picture

What do you do on location. Lets assume you have to rely on battery power for the lights. Can you do this with say Nikon SB-910's or SB500's with the pocket wizard TT1, TT5 flex with the AC3 controller to remotely control the pocket wizards ? I guess I am asking would this work with speed lights ?

Jeff Rojas's picture

Great question and one that I answered several times on YouTube already, so I'm just going to copy and paste it here. :)

"The properties of dictate that the smaller the light source is relative to your subject the harsher (more contrast) your light will have. A light with less power would have less intensity, but not less contrast. Given that I don't know your subject or equipment, or know how you'd compose your image, I couldn't answer your question.

However, let's just say that you are trying to replicate my images exactly... not just a portrait of the face, but something pull back a bit further and you're ONLY using a speed light. You may find that a lighting modifier like a Westcott Rapid box beauty dish may replicate the angle of light, but not the quality (softness) of light. Even though the lighting modifier should create a very soft light source, the speed light just isn't large enough of a light source to have those soft tones."

Eric Snyder's picture

my only comment would be, Its that modifier 59"? I only say that because I am using a 53" octobox and its seems much wider then what you are using, yes I know its a different modifier but 59" across?? It looks smaller then 59"

Jeff Rojas's picture

In case perception looks off... I'm 6'3" and my model is around the same height... If you keep that in mind, you'll see the size comparison.

Kannan Kanagaraj's picture

Hey Jeff, a very dramatic lighting. I have a couple of questions:
1. Will this setup work for a family portrait ?
2. Can I use a 120' deep para for family portraits ( 3 or 4 people)


james uko's picture

Finally got down the two-off flash, background light/face-light setup you posted some time ago. Tried this yesterday as well and it came out nice. Good work broskef.

Tony Burns's picture

Thanks for the great tutorial, Jeff! Gave this one a shot on myself last night and I like the way it turned out.

Eric Robinson's picture

Just found this video, and I’m glad I have. Great relaxed presentation and some lovely shots. I’ve been a big fan of the “keep it simple “ approach which I think has an added value during a shoot. With such a simple set-up, you as the photographer have less to think about, or worry about and can concentrate more on directing the subject which can lead to a more relaxed and productive shoot. I think its doubly important when your subject is not used to being in front of a camera and you can focus all your attention on them rather than faffing about with multiple lights.