One light, yes only one light! A few months back, a fellow photographer asked me what material I was using on some of my pictures. He insisted on knowing what lighting system I used on all my shoots. I didn't understand at first because my lighting setup is everything but complicated. So I answered him briefly that I was only using a single bare Speedlite and sometimes when the weather allowed it, I used it with a silver reflective umbrella like the picture above shot in October 2013.
He was shocked by the info and thought I was using a much more expensive system. Well for me this system was already expensive! Even if a lot of brands now offer cheaper solutions for lighting with Speedlites, I decided back then to invest in a canon 600ex-rt and its wireless remote. And for me, this piece of kit isn't cheap. Of course, it is cheap if you compare it to "professional", more powerful systems like the Elinchrom Quadra, The Profoto B1, or The Broncolor move. But we're not fighting in the same league here and comparing them in terms of price and quality doesn't really make sense.
So, for a year that, is how I learned to use a flash on my photography. If you know a little bit about my work you know that I often shoot outdoors. So basically I use off the flash for fill light or when shooting just after sunrise or just before sunset. It helps me have these dramatic looks on some of my early pictures. And in some situations, I use artificial light to reduce the dynamic range of certain scenes where darks and highlights are too extreme.
Playing with only one Speedlite for me was a good introduction to flash photography. Unfortunately like a lot of starting photographers, I thought I would make better pictures by breaking the bank and investing in multiple expensive head flashes. I went down this road at the beginning when I thought buying the most expensive gear would help me be a better photographer. With only one light, you already have at your disposal a tool that offers you a wide range of looks to choose from and I still believe it is the best way to learn how light behaves on a scene.
I usually play with my shutter speed to "kill" a little bit of the ambient light. This of course is difficult to achieve in mid-day as the power of your light source is insufficient. But this shouldn't be an issue if you avoid shooting outside "golden hours". For the placement of my Speedlite, it will often depend on the body position of the artist I'm shooting with, the scene, and the way you want your shadows to behave. But looking at my pictures today, I can say that I often place my light at a 45-degree angle to create enough contrast and shadows to give more depth to my model. The height will depend on the pose or movement if the subject is crouching, standing, or jumping.
I've worked for a whole year with only natural light and a single Speedlite when necessary. I see incredible photographers making crazy pictures with little material, so I truly believe that you have no excuses to make great photography. It will all depend on your ideas and on the way you will work things around to overcome the technical weaknesses of your material. I won't let my tools stop me from making great pictures!