Studio Lighting

How to Light Portrait Photography?

The key to great portrait photography is understanding portrait lighting. This is true for natural/ambient light as well as artificial light. In this post, we introduce the basics of manipulating studio lighting.

Lighting ratios, lighting patterns, angles of view, and facial positions are essential factors for creating a flattering portrait.

In classical portraiture, there are several things you need to control and think about to make a flattering portrait of your subjects, including lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view. 

Light can make or break a portrait. But the good news is that you don’t need to buy a lot of fancy and expensive lighting equipment. You can create perfect portrait lighting patterns with one single light!

What You Need for Minimalist Portrait Lighting

Besides the camera, you need:

  • A Speedlight (a strobe or video light works too);
  • Off-camera radio transmitter;
  • A tripod or light stand with a flash bracket to hold the light;
  • A diffuser to soften the light;
  • A reflector.

It’s easy to spend a fortune on lighting gear. But the portrait lighting gear we used only cost a few hundred dollars (excluding the camera and lens).

You can even get away with less by buying a used flash and budget brand gear.

Portrait Lighting Patterns

Outdoor Photography

Lighting pattern is how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the front, in simple terms? There are five common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Butterfly Lighting
  • Loop Lighting
  • Rembrandt Lighting
  • Split Lighting
  • Profile/rim Lighting

There are also Broad and Short lighting which are more of a style and can be used with most of the patterns above. Let’s look at each of them individually.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting (also called Paramount lighting) is named after the butterfly-shaped shadow created beneath the nose. Place the primary light source above and directly behind your camera, pointed down slightly on your subject.

For butterfly lighting, position your light in front of the subject and point down on them. The steeper the angle, the deeper the shadows.

Butterfly lighting creates a shadow under the chin, nose, and around the cheeks. When the subject is turned at an angle, it can create more dramatic shadows under the cheekbones.

The higher you position the light behind you and above the issue, the longer the shadows will get under the nose and chin. It’s flattering for most faces.

Brighten butterfly lighting shadows easily with a reflector or white foam board placed below the subject’s chin.

Butterfly lighting is aptly named for the butterfly-shaped shadow created under the nose by placing the primary light source above and directly behind the camera.

The photographer is shooting underneath the light source for this pattern. It is most often used for glamour style shots and to create shadows under the cheeks and chin. It is also flattering for older subjects as it emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.

Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above the eye or head level of the subject (depends on the person).

It is sometimes supplemented by placing a reflector directly under their chin, with the issue themselves even holding it! This pattern flatters subjects with defined or prominent cheekbones and a slim face. Someone with a round, broad face would look better with a loop or even split to slim their face.

This pattern is more brutal to create using window light or a reflector alone. Often a more complex light source like the sun or a flash is needed to produce the more defined shadow under the nose.

The Look

A soft light hits the subject from above. It creates a slight shadow underneath the nose and chin. These shadows help to make the subject’s face slimmer. The shape of the shade under the nose resembles a butterfly, hence the name. This lighting brightens up both eyes and both sides of the face equally.

The Setup

Place an off-camera light directly behind the camera. But, unlike an on-camera flash, raise the light stand so the light source is above the subject’s head. Then, angle the light down towards the issues face at about a 45-degree angle.

When to Use It

Butterfly lighting is a popular but straightforward lighting technique. This portrait lighting setup can emphasize the jawline and the cheekbones.

Try adjusting the modifiers from soft to complex. This allows for more variations, from simple and flattering to dramatic.

The light is flattering to different skin types. It’s typical for beauty photography as well as mimicking a 1950s style glamour shot. It’s also a flattering lighting setup for elderly subjects as it doesn’t emphasize the wrinkles that much.

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subject’s noses on their cheeks. To create loop lighting, the light source must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera (depends on the person, you have to learn how to read people’s faces).

The quickest way to loop lighting is to start with butterfly lighting but then shift the position of your light a little off to the side. Whatever side your light is on, a nose shadow will appear on the opposite side.

Loop lighting sometimes has a lengthening effect on the face. It’s flattering on most people and is used a lot for headshots, and can be set up on either side.

A shadow appears on the opposite side of where the light is placed. The size of the shadow depends on the position of the light and how much the nose is blocking that light.

The end of the nose casts the loop-shaped shadow. You will also see a shadow appear on the cheek opposite the light. Loop lighting behaves much like butterfly lighting – it’s just further to the side.

The Look

A majority of the face is still well lit. But you’re working with a key light that’s off to the side of the camera. This adds shadows to one side of the face. The light is easily identifiable by a short cloud that’s on one corner of the nose. It’s not under, but not precisely to the side either.

The Setup

A loop light is a butterfly light but moved to one side of the subject. Place an off-camera light next to the camera and off to the side, up to a 45-degree angle from the subject.

The light should also be taller than the subject but angled down at them. The light should be far enough from the camera to create shadows on one side of the face. But keep it close enough to the camera that both sides of the face are well lit.

When to Use It

If you want the flattering light of a butterfly but with more interest and dimension, try loop lighting. This pattern is a happy medium between super soft beauty lighting and dark and dramatic.

Bonus Variation

Use a reflector opposite of the light source to lighten the shadows.

Rembrandt Lighting

Named after the Dutch painter who used this style in his work, Rembrandt lighting is very similar to loop lighting. In Rembrandt lighting, however, the shadow loop of the nose is long enough to connect with the shadow on the cheek. This traps a triangle of light on the cheek.

The light’s position for Rembrandt looks a lot like the light position for a loop. Here, it is placed higher, slightly further off-axis, and is at a slightly steeper angle. Rembrandt lighting is kind of like an “extreme” loop lighting.

To get this, start with loop lighting but then continue to position your light up and to the side until the nose shadow and cheek shadows touch. This lighting style is moody, edgy, and artistic. Fill with a reflector for a softer look.

Rembrandt lighting is so named because Rembrandt, the painter, often used this light pattern in his paintings, as you can see in his self-portrait here.

Rembrandt lighting is identified by the triangle of light on the cheek. Unlike loop lighting, where the shadow of the nose and cheek do not touch, in Rembrandt lighting, they do meet, which creates that trapped little triangle of light in the middle.

To develop proper Rembrandt lighting, make sure the eye on the shadow side of the face has light in it and has a catch light. Otherwise, the watch will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle.

Rembrandt lighting is more dramatic, so split lighting creates more mood and a darker feel to your image. Use it appropriately.

To create Rembrandt lighting, the subject must turn slightly away from the light. The light must be above the top of their head so that the shadow from their nose falls towards the cheek.

Not every person’s face is ideal for creating Rembrandt lighting. If they have high or prominent cheekbones, it will probably work. If they have a small nose or flat bridge of the nose, it may be difficult to achieve.

Again, keep in mind you don’t have to make precisely this pattern or another, just so long as the person is flattered and the mood you want is created – then the lighting is working.

If you are using a window light and the window goes down to the floor, you may have to block off the bottom portion with a gobo or card to achieve this type of lighting.

The Look

You can identify Rembrandt light by a triangle of light under one eye. The triangle-shaped light is on the cheek farthest from the light source.

The lighting setup got its name after the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt. His paintings often showcase this kind of lighting. The Rembrandt lighting pattern also creates catchlights in both eyes.

The Setup

Move that loop lighting to a more extreme angle. Rembrandt lighting is typically a 45-degree angle. But you’ll need to move the light until the opposite side of the face only has a small triangle of light on the cheek just below the eye.

The height of the light is a foot or two above eye level. Rembrandt lighting is often a two-light setup. To achieve the style with a single lamp, use a reflector.

Like the leading light, place the reflector at about a 45-degree angle from the subject but on the opposite side. Make sure to angle the glass so that it’s bouncing some of that leading light back.

When to Use It

Rembrandt lighting is a traditional yet dramatic lighting style. This type of light is best for creating a more harrowing portrait, not a soft smiling beauty shot.

It’s often used when shooting male or masculine-looking models. The more extreme side angle is also less forgiving on skin textures. Acne and wrinkles can be more noticeable in this style.

Split (or Side) Lighting

Split lighting (also called side lighting) is a form of lighting where half of the subject’s face is lit, while the other half is left in shadow. It creates a dramatic, unique feel and is not as common as different positions.

Split lighting is straightforward to achieve: place your light to the side of your model. If leaving half the face in darkness is too dramatic, add a reflector or white foam board to bounce a little light onto that side.

Position your leading light to the side of your model at a 90º angle. You can leave the far side entirely in shadow, or you can use a bounce/fill light to show more detail.

Even if you don’t want much detail to show on the opposite side of the face, consider using fill to create catchlights in the eyes. Keep in mind, this kind of lighting will highlight texture in your model’s face. Split lighting is excellent for very moody portraits and is stylish but not always flattering.

Split lighting is exactly as the name implies – it splits the face exactly into equal halves, with one side being in the light and the other in shadow.

It is often used to create dramatic images for a portrait of a musician or an artist. Split lighting tends to be a more masculine pattern and, as such, is usually more appropriate or applicable to men than it is for women.

Keep in mind. However, there are no hard and fast rules, so use the information provided here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the policy whenever you’re unsure.

To achieve split lighting, simply put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject and possibly even slightly behind their head.

Where you place the light about the issue will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In proper split lighting, the eye on the shadow side of the face does pick up light in the eye only.

If by rotating their face, a bit more light falls on their cheek, it’s possible their look just isn’t ideal for split lighting.

NOTE: any lighting pattern can be created on any facial view (frontal view showing both ears, or ¾ face, or even profile). Just keep in mind that your light source must follow the beginning to maintain the lighting pattern.

If they turn their head, the way will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the design just by rotating their head a little.

What the heck is a “catchlight”? Without the eye of the subject catching this light, the eyes will appear dark, dead and lifeless. You need to ensure that at least one eye has a catchlight to give the subject life.

Notice it also lightens the iris and brightens the eye overall. This also adds to the feeling of life and gives them a sparkle.

The Look

A light that splits the face precisely in half, with half the face well lit and half the face in shadow. The second eye may or may not have a catch light.

The Setup

Place the light at the subject’s side, about at face height. The light should only reach one side of the face, leaving the other side dark. Since this lighting pattern is more dramatic, the light can be farther away, with or without a diffuser.

When to Use It

Split lighting is excellent for creating dramatic, moody images. The light is less forgiving to skin imperfections. And the more dramatic look tends to work better with a severe expression than a grin.

Profile/Rim Lighting

Profile lighting (also called rim lighting) is sometimes used in sports portraiture because it has a heroic look.

There are two typical applications of this lighting type. For the first one, position your light behind your subject. This creates an edge of light around your subject, giving them definition and separation from the background.

Your issue will be mostly underexposed. This method requires more than one light if you don’t just want an outline.

For the second one, have your subject positioned at 90º so that you only see their profile.

Place the light in front of their face (at a reasonable distance and just above eye level to start) or even just very slightly behind the side of the face that’s away from the camera. The idea is to light only the edge of their profile.

The Look

Rim lighting is more known for the highlights it creates instead of the shadows. This lighting pattern creates a narrow rim of light on one side of the subject. Rim lighting is often used with a dark exposure to light the subject’s outline, but not always.

The Setup

Rim lighting also uses a light that’s about 45 degrees from the subject. But rim light is 45 degrees behind the issue. Instead of placing the light next to the camera, set the light a few feet behind the subject and to the side. You can adjust the width and placement of that rim by changing the height.

If you want a dark image with only the subject’s outline, use manual exposure to get that dark look. If you wish to the subject’s face lit, expose the face and use a reflector towards the front of the issue.

When to Use It

Rim lighting is dramatic light that emphasizes the subject’s shape. That makes it excellent for photographing athletes, exaggerating curves, or capturing a profile.

The rim of light can be unforgiving, making it less flattering for skin problems. Without a fill light, it’s also difficult to light the subject’s face as well as that rim outline.

Bonus Tip

Add a coloured gel for a more dramatic, fun rim light.

Broad Lighting

Studio Lighting

Broad lighting is not so much a particular pattern but a style of lighting. Any of the following light patterns can be either comprehensive or short: loop, Rembrandt, split.

Broad lighting is when the subject’s face is slightly turned away from the centre, and the side of the face, which is toward the camera (is broader), is in the light.

This produces a larger area of light on the front and a shadow side that appears smaller. General lighting is sometimes used for “high key” portraits.

This type of lighting makes a person’s face look broader or more comprehensive (hence the name) and can be used on someone with a very slim face to widen it.

Most people, however, want to look slimmer, not wider, so this type of lighting would not be appropriate for someone heavier or round-faced.

To create general lighting, the face is turned away from the light source.

Notice how the side of the face towards the camera has the most light on it, and the shadows are falling on the far side of the face, most distant from the camera. Simply put, general lighting illuminates the most significant part of the face showing.

Short Lighting

Short lighting is the opposite of general lighting. As you can see by the example here, quick lighting puts the side turned towards the camera (which appears larger) in more shadow.

It is often used for low key or darker portraits. It puts more of the face in shadow, is more sculpting, adds 3D qualities, and is slimming and flattering for most people.

In short lighting, the face is turned towards the light source this time.

Notice how the part of the face that is turned away from the camera has the most light on it, and the shadows are falling on the near side of the face, closet to the camera. Simply put, short lighting has shades on the most significant part of the face showing.

Putting it all together

Once you learn how to recognize and create each of the different lighting patterns, you can then learn how and when to apply them.

By studying your subject’s face, you will know which lighting pattern will be best for them and the type of portrait and mood desired.

Someone with a round face that wants to appear slimmer in a grad portrait will be lit very differently than someone who wants a promo shot for their band, making them appear mean or angry.

Once you know all the patterns, recognize and master the quality of light, the direction of light, and the ratio, you will be well equipped to handle the challenge.

Of course, it is much easier to change the lighting pattern if you can move the light source. However, if the primary light source is the sun or a window – it’s a bit tougher to do that.

So what you will need to do instead of moving the light is to have the subject rotate in respect to the light to change the direction it falls on them.

Or change your camera position. Or change their position. So basically, move the things you can move about the light if you cannot move the light source itself.

Practice Exercise

Corral yourself a subject (as in a real live person, not your dog) and practice creating each of the lighting patterns we just discussed, including:

  • Butterfly Lighting
  • Loop Lighting
  • Rembrandt Lighting
  • Split Lighting

Remember to show both general lighting and harsh lighting – for each of the different patterns, where applicable. Don’t worry about any other aspect (ratio, fill light, etc.) for now; just concentrate on getting the routines down pat first.

Use the light from a window, a floor lamp with a bare bulb (take the shade off) or the sun – but try and use a light source that you can see what’s happening (do not try using flash until you’ve got more experience, it’s harder to learn with because you can’t see it until after the photo is taken) This also works best to start with the subject facing the camera directly, no turning except to create the broad and short.

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