Easy lighting with a desk lamp

Who says that to get interesting portraits, you need a fancy camera and thousands of dollars of lighting gear? We’re going to show you two super simple lighting setups that will give you completely different looks. All using a simple desk lamp. Nothing else. No wireless transmitters, no giant studio, no $5,000 dslr. Just your living room and a desk lamp. Super easy!


Rachel and I started out by dropping the black side of a 5 in 1 reflector/scrim against the wall right next to our desk…conveniently located right next to our simple little 60 watt desk lamp. You can do the same thing against a dark wall if you have that. Next, we turned off all of the lights in the room so it was super dark and there was no light “contaminating” our shot. I just wanted to use the bright light from the lamp to light Rachel, so I needed to simplify the scene. I placed the lamp just in front and above her face, aiming down at a 45 degree angle. Placing it close (2-3 feet) keeps the light nice and bright on her skin, and keeps the background nice and dark. This happens because we’re metering for her skin, which is significantly brighter than our black backdrop. See the setup below.


With this setup, you get nice dark shadows and really give the subject a super dimensional look. It’s technical term is “low-key.” It accentuates the contours of the subject with deep shadows and bright highlights. I love shooting this way as you can really portray specific moods with how your subject interacts with the light.

FUJI7905Fuji X-E1, ISO 400, 55mm, f/4 @ 1/40 sec

Our next setup was a little different. This time, we set up the white side of the 5 in 1 reflector/scrim on top of our desk. Then we aimed the lamp right at the white backdrop. You can do the same thing using a white wall. The next step is dropping your subject right in front of the lamp. Again, we kept all of the other lights in the room off. By doing this, Rachel was kept in the shadows. In order to expose her correctly, I need to overexpose the whole scene, turning the background that is lit, super bright. Very similar to our post about backlighting. It’s the exact same concept, you’re just overexposing so the background gets way brighter than your subject. See the setup below.


With this setup, you get a very bright, dreamy feel. The subject feels like they’re in super bright sunlight and completely enveloped in light. This style is called “high-key.” It kills most shadows and gives the subject a soft, diffused light across their whole face. Completely different than the previous setup. Pretty crazy that it’s all done with that same simple desk lamp hey?! Just a note for this one…you’ll definitely need to shoot with a higher ISO so that your camera can pick up as much detail as possible since you’re shooting in almost complete darkness. You’ll notice a small catch light in the right of Rachel’s eyes. That’s a bit of sunlight entering the room from the side. We left part of the window open so it wasn’t completely dark, but still dark enough to overexpose the lamp light.

FUJI8016Fuji X-E1, ISO 1600, 50mm, f/1.8 @ 1/30 sec

So there you have it! Get two drastically different portraits with something that you already have around the house. You can even experiment with flashlights, diffused lampshades, led’s, even phone screens! All of these will produce different kinds of light that will interact all different kinds of ways with your subject. Use one, use them all, and get some completely different effects!

Creatively yours,

CJ + Rachel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *