Ian Spanier: Sometimes One Light is Enough

I’ll admit that sometimes on set, it’s about the “show” that you need to put on for your client. What I mean by this is that there are times that having lots of equipment around and assistants constantly moving becomes a necessary part of showing your client that you are more than just a monkey who presses a button. And while that’s all fine and good, sometimes you can say a lot more with one light on a stand than with a cube truck full of gear.

All too often, photographers these days think they need tons of equipment to make a good image. This line of thinking can get real expensive, real fast. But if you think about lighting, it’s usually a case where you're trying to replicate what the sun does. After all, what is the sun, but one light!

Early in my career, I would walk around taking note of how sunlight looked at different times of day and through various weather conditions, as well as how it reflected off of different surfaces. Once I got my hands on some lighting equipment, this observational exercise proved invaluable when it came time to figuring out how to recreate these natural and unnatural occurrences.

As my career has developed, I typically find the need to use at least two lights. Though I like to keep things simple, often the job will call for an additional fill light, or hair light, or highlight here or there, or even just more light to open up a room. Despite this reality, when I can, I'll challenge myself to go to a shoot with just one light. I’m not one to fall into routine and I remind myself that making photographs is supposed to be fun, but it can get boring doing the same setups every time.

Below is a series of images I shot using one light, along with the back story and setup details. The more you shoot, the more you'll find that whether inside or outside, you can create so many different looks from just one light source -- just like how available light works in its many forms.

Recreating North Light
For this shot, I used a Photoflex Large OctoDome. I wanted to recreate the feeling of North Light, which refers to a style of lighting made famous by Irving Penn. In a literal sense, it’s as if you used the light created by the sun reflecting off the Northern sky. I used both baffles in the OctoDome with no silver or gold panels inserted. It’s a very white, diffused quality of light. The OctoDome was nearly tabletop, maybe at a 25-degree angle right above my subject. I was literally backed into the bottom of the OctoDome.


A Quick Save
This image for Danskin’s Clothing Catalog is what you might call a "save". The planned shot, along with way too long of a shot list for one day, was to have our model jumping rope or holding the jumprope in the middle of a brick-lined street. Outside on a hot summer day, where the sun would not quit, we tried and tried to make it work, but it just wasn't happening. Working with a limited budget, we were without enough power to get beyond the extremely strong sun, no option for overhead diffusion, and no semblance of shade nearby. We were quickly running out of time before having to move on to the next set, and ultimately had to abandon the shot. As we drove to the next location, I spotted the wall of an apartment building in slight shade of another building. We quickly pulled over and with a Photoflex TritonFlash and Small OctoDome (front diffusion face and gold panels inserted), we captured the look the Creative Director wanted from the start.

Tight Quarters
As is typical with a lot of my work, we had an incredible shot list for this shoot. We began shooting outdoors poolside at the Planet Hollywood Hotel in Las Vegas with six models. Then we had to switch from swimsuits to lingerie and shoot inside a very tight (but very cool) penthouse suite in the hotel. This meant that I would not have a lot of time to finesse lights. There again, another argument for keeping the lighting simple! Shooting with just one light for all the portraits was a challenge in the tight corners and low ceilings, but I didn’t think anyone would be thinking about that once they saw the images in the magazine. This image was lit with a Photoflex Small OctoDome, powered by a Profoto 7b pack and head.


Blown-Out White
This was another fun one. I was helping out a makeup artist friend and shooting some models for her portfolio. We had this great location in NYC’s West Village, and planned to shoot this model in the upstairs bedroom. We envisioned a white bed shot prior to setting up. Once I got to the room, however, I realized it wasn’t all that. The walls were nothing interesting, and a small window wouldn’t lend very much light in the already dark room. The window light was nice, and it made me think that a blown-out white shot would be cool. The only problem was, I didn’t have any white silk. I quickly assembled my Photoflex Large OctoDome (all white interior with both layers of diffusion attached) and mounted it to a Profoto 7B pack and head. I had actually never tried this before, but figured it would work to blast the light at camera and bounce light around the white room to illuminate my subject. To add some dimension to the model's features, I set up a 42" MultiDisc (white side reflecting) and positioned it to bounce light from camera right.

Finding Inspiration in Natural Light
I thought this post would be incomplete without adding some of my natural light portraits. These images are all shot with just one light source: the sun.


You can easily recreate natural light like this with your one studio lighting using different modifiers. Very often when I get to a location, I first look at what the available light is doing. Many times, I will recreate that single source or combination of sources for a more natural feel.

So the next time you're walking down the street, take notice of the quality of light and how it's interacting with the world around you. You may just come up with a great idea on how to light your next subject! 


To see more of Ian Spanier's work, visit his Pro Showcase page.
All images © Ian Spanier Photography 2013

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