Allan Higa’s Guide to Shooting Portraits On Location with One Light

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Hawaii, USA
KNOWN FOR: Beautiful lifestyle portraits shot against the stunning backdrop of Hawaii’s islands


When looking at Allan Higa’s images, it not unusual to be overcome by the urge to drop what you are doing and immediately move to Hawaii. The stunning landscapes are given plenty of room to breathe in Allan’s shots, ensuring that his portrait images have context and space in which a narrative can begin to unfold. In this Technique blog post, Allan gives us some tips for shooting portraits on location with a single light in sunny conditions.

Image by Photographer Allan Higa for FUJIFILM X/GFX

Allan Higa

Artificial lighting can be daunting at first. However, TTL technology means that your camera takes care of the settings for you. This makes artificial lighting much more approachable. Even better, it unlocks the potential of the FUJIFILM GFX 50S and helps photographers to achieve their creative dreams.

Tip 1: For me, artificial lighting is best used to compliment natural light, rather than overpower it. Your aim should be a portrait that looks natural. This can be done with only one light.

Tip 2: To keep the artificial light subtle, I first expose the shot for my subject, not the highlights. I’m not concerned about blown out areas since they always occur in natural light photos. I’m much more concerned about the shadows on my subject being far too dark.

My aim is to keep the difference between the shadows on my model and the highlights in the image small. This helps to keep the image looking natural. Using too much artificial light will give the feeling of shining a flashlight on someone in a dimly lit room.

However, I am not afraid to darken the ambient exposure every so often as it will make the light more pronounced and create more separation between my subject and the background.

Tip 3: In overcast and flat lighting I’ll often try to get the natural light splitting my subject’s face into two. With one half of the face lighter than the other, it makes a great starting point.

Perhaps unintuitively, placing your artificial light on the model’s lighter side can help to increase the contrast that’s already there and to soften the shadows at the same time.

Tip 4: When the sun is too bright, causing harsh shadows, I’ll often place my subject’s back to the sun. I can then use the sun as a rim light to make the edges of her hair glow. I can then use an artificial light to give her face some dimension.

Image by Photographer Allan Higa for FUJIFILM X/GFX
Image by Photographer Allan Higa for FUJIFILM X/GFX

Tip 5: Positioning the light is a simple process. By placing the light where the sun is coming from, it ensures that the light is helping the natural light rather than fighting it from the opposite direction.

When it comes to distance, I generally double or triple the diameter of the light’s modifier and place the light that far away from the subject. With a beauty dish, my light is usually four to six feet away. With larger modifiers, I’ll try to keep the distance no further than the diameter multiplied by 1.5.

Tip 6: Aiming the center of the light directly at the subject can lead to a bright spot, but this is easily mitigated by feathering the light. This is achieved by offsetting the light so the center of it passes in front of the subject.

This produces a smoother gradient of light across the skin, which softens the shadows as well. I bring the light far enough forward so the entire modifier is in front of my subject. From there, I can move it forwards or backwards to adjust how much it spills over the subject’s face.

Tip 7: TTL metering has come a long way in producing consistent exposures and getting a great baseline flash output. With that being said, I’ll often set the flash exposure compensation between -3 to -2.

I find that, by default, TTL settings will try to make the flash so bright that it perfectly exposes the image, but this is always too pronounced for me.  I try to add light subtly, so that it enhances natural light.

Tip 8: Remember that each time you increase your shutter speed by a stop, the output of a light will need to increase by a stop as well.

Allan Higa is a FUJIFILM-compensated professional photographer.

To see more of Allan’s work, visit his website. 

To explore the full GFX system lineup visit GFX Gear Chooser.

Image by Photographer Allan Higa for FUJIFILM X/GFX