Photo Critique: One-Light Photography

In this members' photography critique, recorded LIVE, Karl reviews images captured using just one light.

He offers constructive criticism and demonstrates simple post-production tips to improve the impact of each shot.

By watching a professional share his feedback and suggestions for a wide variety of different images, you'll learn how to enhance your own one-light photography.

If you enjoy this critique, check out Photo Critique: Portraiture.

Questions? Please post them in the comments section below.


  1. Sorry for answering so late! I just managed to watch the critique show today. In my shot I used a 213cm Octabox about 1-1,5m behind the model. On my right hand side there was a silver Sunbounce Pro 130x190cm reflector and on my left hand side a white one (same size). The space between the reflectors was merely 30cm and of course I had to do a little bit of work in post to get the background pure white and the contrasts on the model as I intended. I remember that I had to reposition the model relative to the Octabox and the reflectors several times until I had the right balance of light.

  2. Hi Karl, thx a lot for including my photo. Thx for all hints. They are highly appreciated.
    The white gap is just the tissue too. The model was wearing the tissue also over the left shoulder. The background itself was black.
    What is the background of the image? With shutting down all life in the first months of Corona, Germans became anxious to run out of very important stuff: toilet paper. You could not find toilet paper anymore in the shops. People had bought everything what they could find.
    The idea was to let the model wear what’s the most desired fabric at this time: toilet paper.

  3. Hi Karl! I was unable to make it during the live show hence watching it later but I have got a question regarding the shot of the lady in a psychopath lab tied in rope( not my shot though). As you say in your emotion to lighting classes that hard light brings more character parts falling in the shadows bring more mystery and mood but here the light is soft, I mean shadow line from the nose is visible but by hard light I mean the hardness which you achieved in one of your fashion shot with a knife in model’s hand. Would you go for such hard light setup if you have to shoot this for a client? I am not against the shot or the photographer but wanted to know can the results turn out better and more intimidating if the light was much harder.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Rik, good questions. It depends entirely on the scene and how you want it depicted. For example in that particular shot the light felt like it could be from a small window or a medium size ceiling light but by hard I meant contrast which was probably not the best description. As you rightly point out the definition of hard light is the sharpness of the shadows and that could only come from a very small or point light source for super sharp shadows. The photographer could also have decided to use that type of lighting from a bare bulb studio flash and that could have replicated a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling in the scary basement.

  4. I shot mine in a studio that had a skylight to my left (right of the model). The flash had a reflector like a P70 but it was a brand I’m unfamiliar with and don’t know the model. It wasn’t a beauty dish but it did have a similar effect. It was, as you surmised, near the model, mounted overhead on a very nice counterweighted boom.

    On that day, I shot 43 models without makeup or hair styling as tryouts for a modelling agency in Den Haag. The next day, I shot almost as many more. Of the group, I think I got at least five very nice portraits, none of which are on my website due to the lack of styling.

    1. I forgot to mention that I adjusted the background in Photoshop to even it out a bit. It is still darker on one side but it had been much darker.

  5. DavidMorgan

    I think there was a thread of cynicism on your part, which was unfortunate. Surely, if you had any concerns, it would be more respectful to contact the photographer first, rather than cast aspersions? That would also have avoided your faux pas over the final image.

    1. Hi David, yes it was definitely unfortunate for the last two shots but my doubt had been raised by the third from last shot which I could only see as being a two light image based on the background. I also made a faux pas on the second to last image which from the comments below you can see was a result of post production. However in my defence I can only say what I see and with no reference or other wise I have to describe what I’m seeing.

  6. Hi Karl, thank you for including my image in the review. I am sorry but in this case you are ‘wrong’. It was shot with one overhead 60cm octobox on a slight angle on a white background.
    I am very happy to share the raw file that actually shows the overhead light and overall setup.
    The glow in the background is done in post very simply. Big feathered round gradient on a curve layer to create the ball of light and I excluded my subject with a mask to keep the original exposure on her.
    It would have been nice to get some feedback on the actual shot (which is what I was originally seeking like everyone else who entered) rather than being implicitly outed as a cheater or an idiot who can’t follow instructions.
    I think the technique I used is pretty common and is not photographically worse than dodging and burning a model’s face in great details for hours to refine the shape of the light. The end result is what matters and the brief didn’t specify dodging and burning in post wasn’t allowed. I chose this technique as I didn’t want to have a background light in the shot which would have been a pain to remove cleanly for not much gain in the final result. Dancers also get bored very quickly so working with one light usually keeps the session flowing nicely.

    1. Hi Stephane, well I’m very pleased to hear that it was with one light. I think coming off the back of the one before which isn’t physically possible to have been shot with one light I may have been slightly more doubtful, however in my critique at 1:21:47 I said it was an effective portrait and had already explained that it was possible that the background was altered in post and not necessarily a second light. I’d also like to clarify that I did not implicitly out you as an idiot or a cheater I think that was more directed at the shot before! In terms of a critique it’s a good shot, I like the composition and the scene/space but the light contouring is a bit harsh and I would switch the overhead light (60cm Octa) for a much bigger light such as the 150 Octa or even the 120×180 softbox as this will smooth out the skin a little.

    2. In Karl’s defense, when looking at loads of student work, as I had to do for 12 years, it is very easy to make an innocent mistake in guessing how a thing was done based on clues in the image. In those cases, it is best to ask but in the live video format, that isn’t possible, so the next best thing is what Karl did: state what one sees and mention alternative possibilities.

  7. felixmilea

    Hey there this is Felix, I had the flower portrait with the red backdrop starting at around 34:30
    First of all, I am extremely flattered that you liked my photo, I learned a lot of what I know about lighting from your videos, and your kind words mean a lot to me.

    As to your doubts regarding the lighting, I can confirm that I did use a single light, a godox strobe attached to an octobox with a grid on. The background is not retouched at all in post, I did tweak the photo a bit in lightroom, but I didn’t touch up the background at all. However the model is indeed very close to the backdrop, and the light is only a few feet away from the model.

    I didn’t do this to try to be fancy or anything, it was actually just a matter of practicality. I don’t have a professional photo studio, I shot that photo in my living room and I am very constrained on space.

    I tried to look back through my phone to see if I took any behind the scenes photos to back up my claim, but this is the only one I could find:

    The photo is from when I was setting up for the shoot, you can see the octobox I used on the right. The blue tape on the floor marks the distances from the backdrop that I wanted the model to be at. The white table visible in the bottom left corner of the photo is what the model is leaning on in the portrait.

    Hope this helps clarify any doubts 🙂

    1. Hi Felix, that’s great to hear and thank you for the explanation, as I said in the show a great result too!

Leave a Comment