Limassol Portrait Photography: How To Create Striking Portrait Photos With Just One Light

portrait photo cyprus

ne of the strangest things I have seen in the photography industry, particularly in Cyprus, is the gear war: a relentless arms race between photographers who think that more gear and equipment will make them better than their peers and make them more likely to impress their clients. In this two-part blog series, I am going to put this argument to bed by giving away one of my biggest photography secrets: how to take the perfect portrait photo using just a single light. This post specifically focuses on my exact lighting setup and the reasons behind all my set up choices. Before we dive in, let’s take a look at a photo of a recent client of mine where I employed the exact techniques I will be discussing in this blog.

Portrait Photography Cyprus

If you like what you see, read on, but just to clarify: this blog post is not just about taking a great portrait photo. If you know you are going to be taking a portrait photo where you will be limited on space, or alternatively, you have a limited budget and only have access to one light, then this post is for you. Let’s dive in.

Lighting for portrait photography

There is something to be said about too much light. A well-lit subject from all angles can create a rather flat looking image without many contours or shadows. This can be desirable depending on the look you’re going for—for example, a commercial for a product that needs to be seen clearly—but when it comes to capturing people, it can take away the drama, contrast and emotion from the image.

Having said that, using a single light can also be quite limiting. So how do we get a good balance, particularly for portrait photos where you need to make sure you have enough light to showcase your subject? There is something known as the inverse square law when it comes to using light. The basic premise of this law is that the fall off of light—the decline in illumination—changes disproportionately as the distance between the light source and subject increases. There is a misconception in photography that this translates to light looking harsher the closer it is to the subject, however, the very opposite is true: the quality of light is softer. The misconception arises because the transition between highlights and shadows is much quicker (which some portrait photographers mistake for harsher), therefore creating a dramatic look in the areas of transition. If the distance between the subject and light source is increased, there will be a smoother transition between shadows and highlights, however, the quality of light itself will appear harsher. For example, see the portrait photo example below of two light sources, one placed 3 feet away from the subject and another placed 12 feet away.

light fall off
Photo Credits to Fstoppers

As a result of this misconception, many portrait photographers make the mistake of placing their light sources too far away from their subjects, but the reality is that if you would like to create a very soft quality of light on a person’s skin, you should bring your single-source light as close as possible to your subject. Just remember to dial down the power of your light to avoid hotspots.

It is important to note that bringing your light source close to your subject introduces another problem, where the light source—be it a soft box or umbrella—is so close to the subject that it comes into the actual frame of the image. For example, see the (unedited) image down below.

Unedited portrait photo

This is obviously not something you or your client will want. However, there are ways around this during the editing process, particularly if you are familiar with Photoshop, but as mentioned earlier, the editing aspect of portrait photography is for another blog post.

As a rule of thumb, your single light source, should be as close as possible to your subject (for example, less than 1m), but as already mentioned, this is the first mistake many portrait photographers make: they place their light source too far away from their subject so as to keep it outside of the frame, but then try to compensate for its undesirable effects by adding another light, only further adding to the problem.

Some of you may be wondering whether the type of lighting setup I am describing above has a name. I should note that although there are a lot of resemblances to Rembrandt lighting, the final result is somewhat less dramatic than Rembrandt and doesn’t produce as distinctive of a “triangle” side of the face that is opposite the light source. The final result (an example of which I posted at the beginning of this post) is closer to what is known as loop lighting, where a shadow is cast around the opposite side of the nose in the shape of a loop. Having said this, if you were to look up examples of loop lighting, you may find they otherwise don’t look much like the example I have given, mainly because once again the light source has been placed too far away from the subject, despite the presence of a loop. In other words, just because one has the intention to apply a particular “style” of lighting doesn’t mean that two portrait photographers are going to reproduce a similar looking image, as there are so many other variables.

Portrait Photo Set-Up Overview

“Ok, Aaron, I hear what you’re saying, but how do I angle my light, and how big should it be”?

Great question. This can vary depending on the kind of look you’re going for, but as a rule of thumb, a good starting point (which I rarely find myself deviating from) is placing the light source (the stand) at a 45 degree angle from my subject (see diagram below) while keeping the light source less than a metre away from the subject—preferably less than 50cm away.

Light Set-up Overview

After placing the light stand at 45 degrees from your subject, you then need to dial in the feathering of your light. Once again, start with 45 degrees so that it is perfectly in line with the stand and your subject, and then feather the light away or towards your subject depending on how much of a shadow you want to cast on the side of the face that is not facing the light.

You also want to make sure your light is angled correctly. The rule of thumb many use is 45 degrees towards the ground, although I find 60 degrees (approximately) also works well and has helped me develop my unique style. You do not have to use a spirit level for this, eyeballing it is completely fine.

As for the height of your light source, this will again vary depending on the height of your talent. As a starting point, imagine if you were to draw a straight line from the bottom of your soft box to your talent. This imaginary line should intersect somewhere around the upper chest/lower neck region of your subject, meaning that a significant part of the dropbox is going to be well above your subject. A good test for this is to get your subject to look up directly towards the soft box. The middle of the soft box should be directly in line with their head. You don’t need to do this for poses, but just to check that you are on the right path when it comes to adjusting the height and angle of your light.

As for size, this is one case where bigger can be better, as a bigger umbrella or soft box will offer more diffusion and therefore more soft light, which is desirable for eliminating harsh and unflattering hotspots on the skin. I personally use a 150cm parabolic LAOFAS Deep Softbox, paired with a honeycomb for extra diffusion and softness, although many prefer to use umbrellas.

As for the distance between the subject and the background, I usually find 1.5m to be a good starting point, but be open to bringing them closer or further away depending on how your test shots are coming out.

To help you get a good visual representation of everything I have described above, take a look below at some setup images I took on my iPhone while on a business photo shoot.

Tethered Portrait Photography

So you’ve set up your background, you’ve set up your lights, now what?

Now you need to get your laptop out, so I hope you remembered to bring it. That’s right: never go to any portrait photography shoot without your laptop. I cannot emphasise how useful having on-set review is when it comes to taking portrait photos, especially if you can shoot tethered. Not only does it impress the business or client you are working for and add a level of professionalism, but it also allows you to immediately review your photos so as to help you dial in your setup. Reviewing images on your small, highly reflective camera screen can be very challenging and accidentally influence you to make the wrong set-up decision, which you only come to realise after the shoot when you load the images onto your PC. So why wait? An on-set laptop (particularly a Retina screen) can help you dial in the look you’re going for and make small corrections to your lighting and subject with great precision. Additionally, it also gives the client an immediate opportunity to cull the images and pick their favourites, saving valuable time after the shoot where you would otherwise send the client the unedited photos and wait for them to get back to you. While on the topic of live tethering, I highly recommend using Capture One , as the workflow is highly optimised and allows for precision editing of skin that simply has not been possible in Lightroom, which I previously used for 4 years.

Camera and light settings

Assuming you are shooting on a full frame camera, I recommend an aperture of anywhere between F2.8 to F4, depending on how much depth of field you would like and how reliable your camera’s autofocus is. As for shutter speed, remember to apply the general rule of thumb of doubling your shutter speed (plus extra for safety) for a given focal length. For example, I use a shutter speed of 1/250th while using my 90mm lens. Remember: some strobes do not sync to your camera’s shutter above certain shutter speeds, so be sure to check your manufacturer’s guidelines. Some brands and models, however, do have a high-speed sync, which can be quite useful, although you will almost never need this functionality in a portrait photo setting.

Now you need to dial in the power of your light. I use Godox AD300 pro lights for my portrait photography (300Ws), and my power setting will typically be anywhere from 1/32 to 1/16 depending on the situation and desired look, but your mileage may vary depending on your power source.

Finally, remember that regardless of how you pose your subject, they should not be facing away from the light. They should either be angled towards it (how much is to your preference) or towards the camera. Facing directly away from the light would largely defeat the point of using a single source of light.


It’s fair to say that taking a great portrait photo is not just art but also science. It requires a lot of attention to detail and understanding of how light works, but the good news is that it doesn’t need the most or the finest equipment. In fact, great results can be achieved with very little, assuming one sticks by certain principles. If you live in Cyprus and you need portrait photos, either for personal use or for your business, get in touch with me here for a quote. In the meantime, stay tuned for the second part of this blog post series, where I will be discussing how to edit the perfect portrait photo!

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