Technology changes with time, but the fundamentals and recipes in photography remains. This article was first published in 2009, revised in 2018
“Single light source creates highlight and shadow on whatever it hits!” – Steven Yee
This is probably one of the most difficult topic which I am writing here; single light photography. If one searches the internet for “single light photography”, one will usually find many URL links that lead to single light studio photography using a single studio flash strobe. Single light photography creates some of the most stunning images ever. As it creates highlight and shadow on whatever it hits, it evokes a sense of mood as well as mystery in some cases.
As a photography instructor myself, I understand that not every amateur photographer owns a studio flash strobe. However, we do experience single light source in our daily life. I thought: How about single light photography using a concentrated available light source?
As we walk in the garden, a ray of light may penetrate the dense leaves of the trees and fall onto a branch to light up a single flower. The strong morning sun pierces through a small opening and lights up a small area of the fence. The window light shines onto a person’s face and brings about shadow and highlight. These are just some examples on single light sources which we can encounter in our daily life.
The next thing to talk about is how to get it done.
- In Program (P), Aperture Priority (A), Shutter Speed Priority (S) or Manual mode (M)?
- Fast or slow shutter speed?
- High or low ISO?
- Big or small aperture
These might be the questions that linger in your mind as you prepare yourself for the shot. For a start, by asking yourself is your subject static or moving? Next, whether you are shooting with or without a stable tripod in the case of photographing a static subject. Do you want a big or small depth of field? How is the lighting condition, sunny or low light? Would you prefer your image to have less noise?
For static subjects, any shutter speed will get the job done if you have a tripod. You can use a low ISO, set your exposure mode to either P,A,S,M mode, with P being the more convenient option. If the tripod is not available, use a higher ISO. The hint is that it is better to have noise than camera shake. For many beginners, the main problem would probably be camera shake due to shutter speed slower than 1/(focal length) of a second. It is strongly not advisable to use S mode set to a very fast shutter speed beyond the limitation of aperture and ISO range, as this will result in under-exposure.
In the event of a non-stationery (moving) subject, you may have to set a higher ISO and use a bigger aperture to get a shutter speed fast enough, ideally at least 1/125s, to freeze the motion.
For taking exposure reading for single light source, professionals may suggest the use of spot metering. However, using the spot metering mode may not be an easy task as many photographers find it hard to determine which the middle tone is. An easier approach is to use centre weighted metering and then under expose the image by a stop or two. Some examples are shown in some images featured in this article.
Some tips as below:
- There should be a main subject
- Appreciate how the single light source result in the subject being side lit, back lit, top lit as well as from the various angles, thus creating shadow and highlight areas
- Be careful not to overexpose and result in hotspot in the image
- To appreciate the shadow and highlight thus created by the single light source, it is advisable to switch off the Active D-Lighting/Light Optimizer
- You are likely to do some exposure compensation on the negative side (Minus EV Value, that +/- button on your camera)
With the above tips in mind as well as the case studies below, enjoy yourself in exploring single light photography.
Footnote: Exposure Modes
- P mode – Program Mode
- A mode – Aperture Priority Mode
- S mode – Shutter Speed Priority Mode
- M mode – Manual Mode