How to Create Four Portrait Looks With One Continuous Light

In this article and the accompanying video, I will show you how to create four unique portrait looks using one light and v-flats. 

When I first became interested in portrait photography, one of the biggest hurdles for me was the almost endless amount of equipment options. I was bewildered by the thought of choosing lights, modifiers, stands, backgrounds, and even triggers. I made quite a few purchases, which I ultimately regretted, because I thought a certain piece of gear would help me achieve the look I saw in other photographer's work. It took me a while to learn that creating dramatic and unique portraits doesn't require and ton of expensive equipment, and that is the inspiration for this piece. 

All of the photos in this article were taken with a Nanlite FS-300, Angler 36" deep parabolic softbox with grid, and two v-flats from V-Flat World. I shot the photos with a Fujifilm X-T5.

Setup 1: Light Placed Camera Left

Setup 1A uses a black v-flat camera right
In Setup 1A, the light is placed to the left of the subject at roughly a 45-degree angle and set slightly above his eye line. I used a black v-flat camera right and the soft box is fitted with a grid. By using a black v-flat opposite my subject, his right side is cast in fairly deep shadow. The grid also adds to the drama, because it keeps the light from spilling around the subject and the background. This setup results in deep blacks in the shadow areas, which, although dramatic, may not be ideal depending on your goals for the shoot.

This brings me to Setup 1B, which is exactly the same as 1A, except I have flipped the camera right v-flat around so that the white side is now facing the subject. Notice the massive difference this makes on the shadow side of the image. The heavy shadows are eliminated, and most of the detail can still be seen both behind the subject, as well as around his legs and feet. Everything becomes more subtle by simply flipping the v-flat around because instead of absorbing the light, the white v-flat bounces it back and fills in the subject's camera right side. I prefer this over the first setup generally, because I don’t like when detail is lost in pure black and prefer the subtle transition from lights to darks. There is, however, a time and place for both of these, and it’s up to the photographer to judge what’s best for the particular situation.

Setup 1B uses a white v-flat camera right

Setup 2: Light Placed Directly Above

Setup 2A places the light directly above the subject.
In Setup 2A, the light is placed directly above the subject and angled down at him. When the light is right above the subject’s face, the shadows will now fall under the chin, which helps to accentuate the jaw line. This will give you results similar to using a beauty dish, but because this modifier is larger than a beauty dish, the shadows will be less harsh and the overall effect more subtle. Similar to Setup 1, this setup will work great for everything from full-length portraits to closeups. Often, I intentionally place my subject right in front of the backdrop because I like how the shadows on the backdrop interact with the rest of the image, as in the image below. You could easily, however, move the subject away from the background if you wanted to isolate them without using the background as a prominent part of your image. 
Setup 2A places the light directly above the subject.
One problem you will run into with this particular lighting is that the light from above will create "raccoon eyes," which are deep shadows in the eye caves. There are a few ways to avoid this. First, you can simply have your subject tilt their head up towards the light, as I did here. But what if you want the subject looking at the camera and also want to have light in the eyes? The answer is simple, and it’s what I call Setup 2B. Again, I haven't moved the light, but instead simply added a white v-flat white below in order to bounce the light back into his face and eyes. As with before, the white v-flat makes a tremendous difference in the overall image. One benefit of the V-Flat World product is that it can be folded into a table for your subject to lean on and can be used for some great half-length portraits. Another excellent reason to use this setup is because it works really well for headshots. Take a look at how soft the transitions are from light to shadow, and how flattering it is for the subject. And all I had to do was zoom in.

Setup 2B adds a white v-flat below.

Setup 2B works very well for headshots as well as half-length portraits.

Setup 3: Light Placed Behind Subject

Setup 3 places the light directly behind the subject
In Setup 3, I took the light, placed it directly behind my subject, and removed the grid. Because this setup will create a silhouette, I positioned him to take a profile photo. Although I wanted a silhouette, I didn’t want him in complete black, so once again, my v-flat came to the rescue. I placed a white v-flat in front of him, in order to bounce light back into his face. By doing this, I was able to add enough light on the front of the face in order to give me the ability to edit it to taste without losing all the detail in the shadows. I paid close attention to make sure I created a small triangle of light on his cheek, sort of like the shape you get with Rembrandt lighting, because I felt this gave my subject more interest. Finding the right exposure here will be a challenge because if you “properly” expose the front of the face, the rest of the image will be blown out. If you expose for the background, the face will be in complete shadow. The answer here is to experiment in order to find a look that you like and that speaks to you artistically. I edited this particular image in Affinity Photo to bring out more detail and give it an extra punch as well.

Setup 4: Hard Light Up Close

Setup 4 places the light in a reflector very close to the subject
In Setup 4, I created a harder and grittier look by removing the soft box from the light and instead used just a bare reflector. The light is placed very close to the subject, high above his head and angled down sharply. At first, my model was wearing a black jacket, and I felt that the results were too dark as the jacket absorbed much of the light. I had him change out of the black jacket and into a light-colored shirt, because this will also make a big difference in the resulting images. Just as the black v-flat absorbs light, black clothing will absorb it too, so always pay close attention to what your subject is wearing and how the clothing can affect the exposure. I also had him hold a piece of white poster board under his face, just out of the frame, and added a white v-flat camera right. The white poster board bounced light back into his face, and although the final image is still quite dramatic with lots of shadow, bouncing some light into the shadow areas helps retain the dynamic range of the image and makes it much easier to edit without crushing the shadows completely. 

Final Thoughts

One mistake I made early on in my journey as a studio photographer was purchasing a modifier I would end up using only once. It's too easy to accumulate gear as we are experimenting and trying to find that elusive "perfect light." Instead of buying a ton of lights and modifiers, get yourself one good light and one modifier, and experiment with that until you can see how the light is falling on and around your subject. I would highly recommend getting a continuous light like the Nanlite I used for these images, because you see the results in real-time, making it an excellent tool for learning how light falls on the human face. There are limits to continuous lights, but they have come a long way in the last few years and many still photographers are now using them for portraits and headshots.

Seeing light is a skill that one can develop, just like listening to and understanding music. When I first started playing electric bass as a teenager, I would listen to music, but I couldn’t hear the bass line. It took some time and active listening before I was easily able to recognize the bass line in different genres of music. It then it became the prominent voice that I would hear and still do to this day. Understanding and seeing how light works is very similar to this. When I first started, I didn't see many of the subtleties that I now see when creating images, and it took a lot of time practicing in my studio as well as studying the work of photographers I admire in order to begin to recognize and internalize light. It’s a skill I’m still working on, of course, and one we can develop all day long simply by observing the light around us in any given situation.

Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

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Good article -- I'd add diagrams for the setup in the future and maybe, more importantly mention that the article is sponsored by V-Flat World as well.

Thanks, Marc. Appreciate the comment. The article is not sponsored by v-flat word or any other product. It's just what I use in my studio which is why I mentioned it. Diagrams are a great idea, I will keep that in mind for the next one!

Very informative and inspirational article, than you!

Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

Nice article and portraits Mr. Coco.

Just curious, what were the focal lengths of the lenses used? As stated earlier, a diagram would be highly appreciated for us visual learners :-)

All the best!

Eric Charles Jones

Thanks! I used a Fuji 35mm for the closer headshots and a Fuji 16-55mm for the full length shots. In my video, I show b roll of the setup which you might find helpful: