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This post was most recently updated on September 25th, 2022

When it comes to lighting it’s a personal preference for each photographer. Whether you’re shooting with one source of light or five, both can provide excellent results.

Some of the best portrait photographers in the world swear by using one light as it replicates a more organic image due to natural light usually coming from one source, like a window, or the sun.

Others swear by multiple lights as they feel they can get more creative with the light sources and how they can manipulate the room to produce a special image.

There are valid arguments for both. It’s very dependent on the style of the photographer. Lighting is a huge influence on creative style. I’d suggest not to get hung up on the number of lights, but more focus on the look you are trying to achieve.

I’d also like to add, depending on whether your studio has big windows, natural light from a window is perfectly acceptable if it provides the right lighting.

STUDIO

Source VS Amount Of Lights

The source is important to understand. The number of sources is different from the number of lights. You can have 4 lights blasting from the same source. Or you could have 4 lights blasting from 4 sources.

Using different sources will cast different shadows and highlights across the subject. Whereas 4 lights from the same source will simply be producing highlights and shadows from one direction.

The Vibe

A single light source creates more of a natural light source, we are used to natural light coming from one source, like the sun. This can produce a very organic realistic feel, and sometimes a photographer can do this where it’s hard to tell whether they have used lights or natural light.

When you use a whole light setup, you often find yourself creating a very studio, commercial look, producing a very perfect crisp studio image. This can still be achieved with one light but not in the same way, it’s clear the style is different.

As you add more lights from different positions such as kickers or hair lights, the image can become far more polished, but often what happens is the photo looks a lot more commercial and less natural.

Neither option is bad, but it’s simply a matter of artistic preference and what the client is after. Another option is to diffuse the light so that it’s more subtle in whether it’s bounced light or coming from another source.

Studio Constraints

If you have a huge studio space with high ceilings to shoot in, along with an endless supply of lighting equipment, flags, umbrellas, strip lights, flash, HDMI, LED, tungsten and assistants at your disposal!

In this scenario, you have every option under the sun, and you can just move on to setting up correctly and communicating with the model. However, if you don’t have a big budget and have to work in a tiny space with a limited light source supply, then this is very different and you’ll have to work with what you have.

Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing, this can make it far simpler and you can surprise yourself with what can be achieved. One of the main challenges is figuring out how to expose the subject and the background correctly.

With a single light source, we can vary the distribution of light by moving the subject closer or further from the background. For example, if we want a white background and a well-exposed subject with a single source.

To do this we need to bring our subject closer to the background relative to the distance of the light from our subject. If we have our light close to our subject, then based on the inverse-square law the light will fall off quickly and its exposure will be drastically reduced before it reaches the background.

To offset this, we can pull the light further out or bring the subject closer to the background. If you have a large studio you have a lot of space to move the light away from our subject. If you have a small space then you have to work with the space you have.

At the same time, if we want to keep the quality of light similar, we’ll need to increase the size of our light source, this is where you’d add more lights to the same light source. If we move our subject closer to the background, then the subject will cast a shadow that we may or may not like.

Again, this is a personal preference and dependent on your style as a photographer or what you are trying to achieve for the client.

Types Of Fill Lighting

Types Of Fill Lighting

Depending upon your constraints, there are many types of lighting techniques to use to achieve your desired fill light effect.

  • Lighting units – An actual light is your most obvious source of fill light. However, a lighting rig may be out of your budget. If you only can afford one light, you should always go for the key light source.
  • Reflectors – These modifiers, which are inexpensive, portable, and available in a variety of sizes and colours, simply reflect the key light towards the subject. The colour of the reflector will modify the shadow. A gold reflector will cause warmer tones on the subject. A silver reflector produces a cooler light back to the subject. Many reflectors do not take up much space and do not require the set-up of a light stand. Any reflective material can act as a fill light as long as it does not introduce a new colour into the shadow. However, reflective surfaces such as mirrors and aluminium often reflect too much light onto the subject but can be cool if done with a creative eye.
  • Walls – Walls and ceilings can also act as large reflectors of light, bouncing back the key light, especially if the walls are white. This helps create a soft and subtle lighting effect.
  • Flash – Another way to provide fill light is a flash. In a well-lit situation, a flash will remove shadows. Another advantage of using a fill flash is that you can shoot the subject with the sun behind their back. This is similar to a strobe light. While more expensive and with higher maintenance in terms of set-up, a strobe can be a useful lighting method. Because it does not require a key light to reflect off of it, it can be placed anywhere on set for the desired effect.
  • Negative fill – When a cinematographer wants a fill light that is darker than what natural light provides, they simply block the ambient light with a black or opaque flag. This stops excess light from bouncing back at the subject.

Pros For Single Light Source

What’s great about striving for a single light source is the simplicity, organicness, cost, and all-around simplicity. You can spend more time with your model, going through poses and getting comfortable with one another to get the best results.

Creating a comfortable relationship with the model is a very undervalued skill as a photographer. Although models are professionals, they are still human beings. And making them feel comfortable and confident is crucial to getting some of those special shots that may have not been achieved without that relationship.

The relationship between photographer and model can be very intimate in a professional sense, and this can come through in the photos, evoking more power and emotion.

Having loads of lighting equipment can be a huge constraint to creativity and time spent composing your photographs. And it can take a lot of the raw love for photography, and make the shoot a lot more stressful.

Pros For Multiple Light Sources

Multiple light sources require a bigger budget, assistants, more space and more time.

If you have all of these things then you can create beautiful images. Although this amount of lighting tends to steer away from more organic natural images, you can create magical images with very interesting light, highlighting your model in ways that can’t be achieved with a single light source.

This level of production is usually used for big commercial campaigns as that’s the fashion look the client is looking for. Multiple light sources allow you to achieve that fashion look of ‘total perfection’. Polished, and perfect.

Some higher-end clients won’t accept lines like “I can fix this shadow in post-production”. They want to see near-perfect images coming out of the camera on the shoot, needing little post-production. This is the aim for multiple source lighting.

On the other hand, although it tends to make a less natural feel, multiple light sources allow you to get very creative with your light, creating moods that are unique to you. If you are skilled with light, this can be a huge advantage to the results you achieve.

How Do You Choose Your Preferred Lighting Configuration

  • What sort of light do I want (soft, hard, natural, commercial)
  • What am I lighting (subject, background, foreground, props)
  • What constraints do I have (space, gear, power output, budget)

With these considerations in place, begin to eliminate options and weigh up the pros and cons. I’ll generally aim for the minimum number of lights that will give me the look that I want and add more if I’m out of options.

As you add lights be sure to check their effects by metering them or taking test shots with one light on at a time. This is important in understanding the interaction of the lights and helps see their effect and value. This is the way to learn.

There is no right or wrong answer in the big light source debate. I always aim to take the path of least resistance, staying as close to what’s natural as possible.

You have to be a strong photographer to use one light well, neither option requires more skill or creativity than the other and neither will give a better or worse end product, it’s art, and it’s subjective.

The results may be similar or different, but what’s important is whether it’s the result that you or your client were aiming for.

ON ASSIGNMENT

Outside – Daylight

There is no one way to light your subject or set on assignment. It’s all dependent on your location and creative style. If you are shooting in the middle of a field in daylight, then most of your lighting will be about diffusing, bouncing and blocking light to focus the correct light balance on your subject.

The reason for this is because if you have a good natural light source then it’s best to use and manipulate this to the best of your (and your crews) ability, to produce the most natural, organic vibe possible.

If you are shooting outside in softer light, sunset for example, then you may want to use some soft artificial key light to add a subtle extra pop to your subject, highlighting the point you want to pop, and some bounce if you want to add some extra golden tones from the warm sunset light to the subject.

You can fill light with natural light bounce, or if the source isn’t strong enough due to fading light, you can add an artificial fill light to balance the shadows. In this scenario, one key light can do the job. A massive production of various light sources may be overkill and take away from the organic light.

Inside – No Light

If you are shooting inside a room on location with no windows, then lighting becomes essential to set the vibe you are going for. The size of the space depends on the amount of light you will need. If you are in a small space you can get away with less or even one key light source.

The first style of lighting you should try in this scenario is three-point lighting. Three-point lighting deals with the relationship between all three lights. One key light, one fill light, and one light highlighting the back. This is called the light intensity ratio.

Generally, the key light to fill light ratio is 2:1.

This means that your key light should be twice as bright as your fill light. Highlighting the key parts of your subject. The relationship of intensity and placement can change depending on your goals, but the above ratio will give you the look for narrative powerful images.

If you’re going for a more dramatic contrasting vibe of light and shadows, you may want the ratio to be closer to 5:1 so that you get a much more powerful isolated image with dramatic contrast making the subject pop.

Final Thoughts

The amount of light you use in and out of the studio is dependent on your location, the amount of natural light available, your budget and the style you are trying to create.

Lighting and photography is art, and it is subjective, but there are some general guidelines that we’ve talked about above to achieve the basic look you’re aiming for.

Within these parameters you can get creative by moving lights and experimenting with your model, increasing light, bouncing light, diffusing light, filling shadows, colouring with light and more.

The size of your production, location and who you are working for may determine how many lights you want to use for your shoot.

If you are shooting for a high-end fashion company and their style is very commercial, polished and perfect, then having multiple light sources to create a balanced and perfectly lit subject, maybe the way to go.

If you do this I suggest first learning about the three-point lighting technique, which is the first lighting technique you should familiarise yourself with. If you are shooting portraits for a passion project or a more ‘edgy’ or ‘unusual’ brand, you can create truly beautiful images with just one key light.

And the biggest perk to using one light is the ease and simplicity of having far less equipment. So you can spend more time with your model, composing and creating fun ideas to create beautiful work.