Home / The Bui Brothers / The Move From Zero to One Light

The Move From Zero to One Light

Many photographers we know tell us that they have worked with natural light and feel they have really mastered it… but have no idea where to start with off-camera lighting. They don’t know if they should go out and buy an Alien Bees kit or just rent some Profoto lights… or if they should just buy some Canon 580EXII flashes and a bunch of pocket wizards. They don’t know what wireless systems to use, what stands, what light modifiers… it can be overwhelming.

My advice is usually to start REALLY small and CHEAP and figure out what you like then your way up. Jumping out and spending a few grand on a lighting kit isn’t going to make you a lighting pro… so why not start with just ONE light?

If I could suggest the most inexpensive and simple one light kit for experimentation it would be the venerable Vivitar 285HV for $90 and the Gadget Infinity Cactus Wireless V2s for $35. For $125 plus shipping you’ve got an off camera flash that can do quite a bit!

You’ll want a few light modifiers. First some sort of diffusion (you can get an umbrella for $15 and a bracket that will mount between your stand and flash for another $15) or you can get a small or medium softbox that will fold up for travel for around $100. You’ll also want something to tighten the beam. I have a tutorial to make your own flash grid out of some straws and glue and tape here, or you can just purchase some black tinfoil to make an adjustable snoot. You’ll likely need at least one stand (or find a tall friend)… and you can pick up something at least 10’ tall for $40 or so.


Not all of the shots here were done with the kit described above, but they all COULD be done with it… these are just some examples we have of one light setups and how they were done, along with some tips to look out for.

Veronica Belmont with softbox:

This photo of Veronica was done with just one medium softbox. The key was in keeping the light source as close to the model as we could while keeping it out of the frame, which allowed the light to remain as diffuse as possible. This could also be done with a large umbrella which would have provided a round catchlight in her eyes instead of the square one you see here.

Tip: The farther your light source is from your subject, the more direct (opposite of diffuse) the light will be, which means the harsher the shadows will be, as we’ll show in the next example.

Tracie Cotta with flash and grid:

For this shot of Tracie the light source was considerably farther from her at about 15’ away and on a 13’ stand, pointing down at around a 45 degree angle. There was a grid on the front of the flash, which narrowed the beam down to just the circle you can see on the ground. You can see how harsh the light is on her face and the shadow areas, but since this was a full body shot and her features weren’t close up the harshness of the shadows weren’t unflattering. The point of the small beam of light was partly to spotlight her but also to keep some solid separation from the ground under her feet and the sky in the background which were going to be around the same color.

Tip: Expose for your background first, when possible, then turn on your light and adjust accordingly until the exposures for your subject and background are balanced where you like them. Adjusting one light source at a time allows you to fine tune without affecting the other sources.

Micah Lee with bare flash:

This bench and background were perfect for the shot we wanted, but the vision I had for it would have required a streetlamp where there was none. Instead we set a bare flash on a stand pointed straight at Micah’s back. Again I exposed for the windows in the background first then dialed in the flash exposure on Micah to my liking, which was just slightly blown out on his cheek. The light lines coming through the slats of the bench was a happy accident.

Tip: If you’re faking a light source, do your best to get it at the right height. I didn’t have a tall enough stand to truly be at the 20’ or so I’d like but even at about 10’ the angles of the shadows worked enough that most people wouldn’t notice.

iJustine with soft box on boom:

This shot took a little more gear and preparation. So much prep in fact that we lost more light that we had hoped. The light had a medium softbox on it and was on a boom pole directly above Justine. In order to keep the light flattering on her face we had her point her face directly at the light. This one was shot at a high ISO and with the flash turned all the way down so that we could get a little bit of the sky. The soft box was good because it allowed some light on the flowers and grass but also limited it enough so that there was enough falloff for a nice natural vignette.

Tip: When you’re losing light in your background but don’t want to adjust your flash exposure, change only your shutter speed. Shutter speed adjustments don’t change the exposure of the flash because the actual flash pop is so much faster than your shutter is open anyway.

iJustine with flash and black tinfoil snoot:

This shot required a small spot of light on Justine’s face, so we wrapped the black tinfoil around the flash head and kept squeezing down until we had a small enough hole that the light coming out was perfectly controlled to show just parts of her face and a small highlight on her hair. The flash was actually handheld and each exposure was completely different. Not the most efficient but we got the exact shot we wanted.

Tip: Don’t worry about trying to keep the hole perfectly round, and feel free to make it much smaller than you actually think you need it, then go larger and larger (it’s easier than trying to make it smaller and smaller) until you find the right size. If you use tape make sure it’s gaffer’s tape or something else that won’t leave residue on your flash!

DJ Shogun with flash and umbrella:

To get the city lights in the background we dialed in the exposure on the lights first then brought in the flash. While doing the test exposures we noticed there was a nice amount of backlight on the far side of his face coming in off the street, so we made sure to keep the flash dim enough that we could keep that backlight (if the flash was too powerful the exposure would have had to be brought down and that backlight would disappear).

Tip: In order to keep the flash dim enough we actually had to cover part of it so not as much light could get out. We also didn’t open the umbrella all the way so the light wouldn’t be TOO diffuse.

Once you’ve spent some time with one light… you may have a better idea of what you enjoy doing and what looks you’d like to pursue afterwards. Then you can just add a flash and wireless receiver… or you can decide that you need a larger system. Either way starting with the sub-$200 setup above is an easy way to start learning how to use off-camera flash and to start understanding how to blend existing light with your artificial light sources.

Written by The Bui Brothers.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!