Portrait Lighting – On-Axis Lighting With a Bounce Umbrella

Shooting portraits is all about good light, I guess we all agree on that. Today, I want to show you how to take stunning portraits with just a single light source and a very simple setup with one light modifier!

I came a long way to where I am now.  And believe me:

The more lights you add, the more trouble you can get!

If you are unable to get it right with one or two light it is not about adding more lights, but to use the lights you have correctly and to their full potential.
So, we will start a series on how to use simple but effective light setups to get stunning results!

What we need for this setup:

  • Flash on a light stand (studio flash or just a speedlight)
  • Black background / sheet of paper / clothes
  • a bounce umbrella as our light modifier

Lighting diagram - one light on axis - bounce umbrella
Lighting diagram – one light on axis – bounce umbrella.

As you can see in the image above, the light stand is directly in front of the model and pointing towards the subject. The light is on the same axis as the camera, so this is called on-axis light. That way, we get some nice flat light on the models face,  flattening out contours and hiding imperfections in the skin. This has been a well known technique for fashion shots, but those are mainly shot with a ring flashes or beauty dishes, which are quite more expensive then a shoot through umbrella.

What I really like to do with on-axis lighting is to position the flash and umbrella slightly higher than the subject with the center of the umbrella pointing slightly down towards the subject.  That way we get some nice shadow beneath the chin and nose. But as the axis of the light  is still very close to the line of sight of the camera, you still get those nice catchlights in the eyes, actually a reflection of the lit umbrella.

Bounce-umbrellas bundle the light and reflect it. Great if your subject stays in a defined area. You also get some nice dramatic and pronounced shadows that add depth to the image. The light is harsher than with a shoot trough umbrella

One light lighting setup Portrait 1

One light lighting setup Portrait 1

As you can see, the results are quite impressive. Now you might wonder, what’s the difference between a white shoot-through umbrella and a bounce umbrella. The shoot-through umbrella spreads the light wide and with a softer fall off on the edges.  You get less contrasty shadows with it as the light is less directed. The light wraps around the subject providing a softer light and thus softer shadows.

Shoot-through umbrellas are like carpet-bombing.

You will love shoot-through umbrellas for their soft light and soft shadows. Furthermore, they are great for lighting younger kids as they often move around and might not stay where you want them to be. 

I hope you enjoyed this and make sure to give it a try! Especially for just head shots you will not need a huge black backdrop. This kind of photos can be done in the studio with a studio flash or at home with just a single speedlight. You will see, it can’t get any easier!

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I'm a professional photographer from Central Germany where I run a photo studio. I love to shoot portraits and I always like to push the limits. Whenever I'm not in the studio I'm outside chasing the light. I'm totally addicted to photography!

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