The diversity of the single light

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The diversity of the single light

A single light is all you need to make powerful images. Working with reflectors and simple light modifiers it can also be a very diverse light. Back when I was just learning lighting, owning one very simple flash, I remember when I first saw the potential of just one light.

It was Dean Collins showing us how one light, shooting through a scrim can give a soft wrap-around light on the subject. The exciting thing for me was the rest of his setup. The scrim reduced the light by about 2 stops and the scrim was positioned so there was spill on the white background and even more spill light came across the front to hit a foam core reflector to create fill light.

With one light he had created a high key portrait with a full washed out background as well as soft shadow control. Dean was a genius at teaching light. Anything you can get of his, will leap you forward in knowledge.

The scrim is a very handy tool when working with one light source. Essentially it is a large panel; my homemade version is ripstop white nylon, cheap and easy to make with clean color. The large panel spreads the light out to a soft wrap around. The further you put the light from the panel the more even the light coverage coming off the panel. Bring it in close for a more directional, diffused light.

You can sharpen the single light too. Pull the light back away from your subject then put two gobos on each side of it to create giant barn doors. I use black foam core, 8×4 foot sheets. The closer they come together the sharper and more focused the shaft of light is. It is like stream of sunlight coming in. Inject some fog or dust into the image to make the shaft of light visible. Add a colored gel to the light to make it sunset warm or give it a cool blue color.

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Mirrors or broken shards of mirrors can also extend the uniqueness of the one light. The mirror tends to magnify the lights strength, giving you very sharp edges and crisp light.

Place it directly above your camera with a reflector below bouncing fill back up to your subject’s face to create a glamour butterfly light.

For most approaches, always light your subject with the featheredge of the light. It wraps around the subject more, creates a more even light. A bonus advantage of this approach is the core light from the centre is what you use to create the illusion of additional lights.

Working with a larger mirror: I like to use a cheval mirror that I can easily tilt to direct the light. By controlling the spill of the light, the reflected light can come in from the far side to create an edge light that separates your subject from the background.

A very dramatic effect is to have your single light behind your subject so they rim light. Place a mirror or soft reflector depending on the effect you want to create on one side so it catches some of the light. Bring it in close to your subject to give a delicate and moody directional light.

Before you move onto an array of lights, really invest the time to master the one light. Think outside the box and you will be thrilled with how diverse that one light can be. Once you master it, you will be able to see light much better so the mastery of multiple lights will be very easy and quick.

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