Mastering the Single Light Setup

XE2-0231Occasionally I’ll have someone who is interested in flash photography ask me where to start learning how to setup a shot using their speedlights. In that scenario I always advise them to take the one speedlight they enviably already have and get it off of the camera and learn how to use it. The reason being is:

  1. Simplicity. It’s a lot less overwhelming than trying to setup multiple flashes, especially when you’re first learning how to use them.
  2. You can do so much with just a single flash, you may not need to do much more in many situations.
  3. You’re likely to always have at least one speedlight with you.
  4. Isolation. When learning a new skill, I find it best to remove as many variables as possible. Although fun, trying to learn flash photography by setting up multi-flash setups is more likely to be frustrating than educational.

In most cases I’m an equipment minimalist, but I suggest that you start off here with a few items that will make things much easier. You of course will need a flash and the speedlight you probably already have for you camera more than adequate for this exercise. You’ll need a way to trigger your flash remotely with a set of flash triggers. To support the flash you should get a light stand and an umbrella bracket. And as far as light modifiers go, start out with a shoot-through umbrella. You should be able to pick up all of these items for far less than $100. If you need some assistance on deciding what to get, check out my Gear to Get page for some recommendations.

Alright, let’s jump in!

45 and 45 light setup.

The first setup you should master is one that you will probably use over and over again because it just works so well, the look you get it great, and it’s very easy to setup. As you get a little experience with it you’ll probably start to add little tweaks here and there and expand upon your setup, but a vast amount of images will start here. I call it the 45 and 45 because you’ll have your flash 45 degrees to one side or another, and above your subject at a 45 degree angle. Shooting through an umbrella at 45 and 45 will produce a very nice, soft, flattering light with great catch lights in the eyes of your subject.


Once you can sling up your umbrella and know what all of your settings need to be before you even take the first shot, you can start experimenting with different variation on the 45 and 45. Here are some ideas of variations you might want to try, but don’t be afraid to try your own ideas and see what you get. You really could spend a lifetime shooting with a single flash and trying out new ideas.

  • Set your subject by a reflective surface such as a light colored wall to add fill from the opposite side of your flash.
  • Place your subject in front of reflective wall and use the flash’s refection on the background to separate your subject from the background.
  • Use gels and white balance to completely change the look and feel of your photo.
  • Try different lighting modifiers like a Stofen, snoot, or grid.
  • Get the flash closer or further from the subject to change the amount of light (and the look of the light) on the background.
  • Vary the angle of the camera to the subject to change the look of the picture. Closer to the flash you’ll have less shadows and more flat light. Further from the flash you’ll have more shadows to create a more “moody” effect.
  • Using a single light setup in bright light
  • Using the same setup, vary the shutter speed to change up the background exposure.

XE2-0245The Pictures in this post were all taken with a single speedlight and a shoot through umbrella. I wanted to keep the mountain in the background visible which wouldn’t have happened if I exposed for the subjects. It would have vanished and the sky would have been blown out and colorless. So I exposed for the sky and added flash to light up the subject. I wound up using my fastest shutter sync speed of 1/180th of a second, F10 at ISO 800.

So get started and see what you can do with just a single light. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how easy it is as well as how limitless a single light can be. Let us see your progress! Post your pictures up on our Facebook page. I’d love to see them.


XE2-0251Don’t miss a single post! LIKE ComeLightWIthMe on Facebook to be notified of my next setup, discuss lighting, and submit your own photos. I’m happy to answer all of your questions on Facebook as well.

Want to learn more about lighting? See my Behind The Scenes page where I outline how I get every shot and so can you!