Light can make or break a portrait. But the good news is that you don’t need to buy a lot of fancy and expensive lighting equipment. You can create amazing portrait lighting patterns with one single light!

What You Need for Minimalist Portrait Lighting

Besides the camera, you need:

  • A speedlight (a strobe or video light works too);
  • Off-camera radio transmitter;
  • A tripod or light stand with a flash bracket to hold the light;
  • A diffuser to soften the light;
  • A reflector.

It’s easy to spend a fortune on lighting gear. But the portrait lighting gear we used only cost a few hundred dollars (excluding the camera and lens).

You can even get away with less by buying a used flash and budget brand gear.

The Look

A simple diffused on-camera flash works as a fill light. It eliminates under-eye shadows and adds a sparkle to the eye.

The light is coming from the same direction as the camera. This means that there are few shadows. If you soften the light, these can flatter imperfections like bumps and wrinkles in the skin.

This lighting pattern is the least interesting of the bunch. But when the lighting in the scene is already interesting, you can perfect the portrait with a slight fill using this technique.

The Setup

Leave the flash on your camera, but add a diffuser. Turn the flash to manual mode and dial it down. I often use this technique on the lowest possible flash setting.

When to Use It

If the sun is already creating excellent lighting for portraits, a diffused on-camera flash can add one important detail: catch lights.

Catch light is the light source reflected in the subject’s eye. If you were to zoom into the model’s eye, you would be able to spot the shape of the light source. Catch light adds dimension to the picture and draws the viewer’s attention to the eyes. Without the catch light, the subject’s eye seems boring and lacks the sparkle that makes it look alive.

On-camera flash doesn’t add much dimension. This is because the light is coming from the same angle as the camera.

Use it when the sunlight is already adding that dimension. If you only need a catch light, there’s nothing wrong with popping in a little on-camera flash.

The Look

Soft portrait light that hits the subject from an angle.

The Setup

Leave the flash on your camera. Place a reflector, so it bounces the light back to your subject. Then turn the flash head until it points into the reflector.

With this setup, you can adjust the reflector to get different looks. Try bouncing into a reflector that’s angled 45 degrees in front of the subject.

Or, point the flash head up and have someone angle the reflector over your head. This creates a look similar to butterfly lighting with an off-camera flash.

You don’t have to use a reflector either. You can bounce your light off a neutral coloured wall or ceiling.

When to Use It

You might not have a radio transmitter to get your flash off the camera. This method will allow you to get soft, angled light in your portraits without one.

The downside is that holding the reflector in the right position is difficult on your own.

You can get a mount to hold the reflector on a tripod. But these are difficult to angle right and tend to tip over in the wind.

Still, the light is flattering. And it’s an excellent stepping stone into off-camera lighting.