In the spirit of keeping it simple, one-strobe setups are many portrait photographers’ default when it comes to studio lighting. The best thing about these arrangements is how much they can teach us about the behavior of light; because there is only one source, every little change is a reflection of that light alone. It’s truly amazing to see the way slight alterations in position, distance, and size can have such profound effects on your image as a whole. In this video, veteran photographer Joe McNally discusses the nuances of single light source photography:
McNally is talking specifically about his experience with the 74-inch Elinchrom Octa box, which is indeed a gorgeous piece of equipment. But if you don’t have an extra $1200 lying around, never fear; you can still take wonderful photographs that play with light all the same. You just need to be a little more creative.
In the video, McNally describes the Octa’s biggest benefit as being indirect; rather than diffusing a straight-on flash, the strobe is turned backward and reflected through the interior first, then scattered through the silk screen. So essentially, the Octa is simply a huge umbrella paired with a softbox.
With that in mind, we can attempt to recreate the effect ourselves (to a certain extent) on a smaller budget by using a large reflective silver umbrella with a diffusing screen in front of it. The quality of the light may not be as legendary as in the video, but the same concept is there; only keep in mind that the light’s intensity will fall off quite a bit using this method, and you’ll need a wider aperture or a higher ISO than you otherwise would.
No matter what kind of light you’re using, whether it’s an Elinchrom Octa, a regular soft box, or a straight, hard bulb, different parts of the beam (the edges vs. the center) will always have different qualities. Whatever light you shoot with, try moving your subject around within it, as McNally suggests. Notice the different ways the light wraps around your subject and fills in (or fails to fill in) the shadows, and examine the effect that has on the portrait’s overall mood. After all, getting acquainted with the way light moves, and how it paints the images that we create, is key (if not the key) to improving our skill in photography.