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 all important factors when creating a flattering portrait.
Here are a few basic lighting setups and how to use light and shadow on a subject’s face to create different looks. For folks brand new to photography, get started first with this portrait photography overview and then practice the eight portrait lighting positions below.
These lighting patterns/positions and explanations are designed for beginners but are also great reminders for advanced photographers. All of these positions (with the exception of a brief demonstration of lighting ratios at the end) use only one light (and sometimes a reflector), making these very achievable with a minimal amount of gear.
Portrait Lighting Setup 1: Butterfly Lighting
Butterfly lighting (also called Paramount lighting) is named after the butterfly-shaped shadow that’s created beneath the nose. Place the main light source above and directly behind your camera, pointed down slightly on your subject.
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 subject, the longer the shadows will get under the nose and chin. It’s flattering for most faces.
Portrait Lighting Setup 2: Loop Lighting
Loop lighting is created by placing your light slightly above eye level of the subject and 45º off axis (give or take). This shifts the nose shadow to one side of the face. Instead of a butterfly-ish shadow, you’ll end up with a small loop.
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.
Portrait Lighting Setup 3: 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.
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.
Portrait Lighting Setup 4: 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 other positions.
Position your main light to the side of your model at a 90º angle. You can leave the far side completely 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 great for very moody portraits and is stylish but not always flattering.
Portrait Lighting Setup 5: Profile/Rim Lighting
Profile lighting (also called rim lighting) is sometimes used in sports portraiture because it has a heroic look.
There are 2 common 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 subject 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.
Portrait Lighting Setup 6: Broad Lighting
Broad lighting is a technique that can often be combined with one of the lighting patterns above to solve specific problems.
Position the subject so that the part of their face that’s receiving the most light is also the part that’s closest to the camera. This means your subject needs to be sitting at a slight angle from you. It’s very useful for subject’s wearing glasses, as broad lighting is the quickest way to light someone while keeping their glasses outside the angle of reflection. Broad lighting is common for school portraits and corporate headshots for this reason. However, it also can make a face look wider than usual.
Portrait Lighting Setup 7: Short Lighting
Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. In short lighting, the part of the face that is most illuminated is also the part furthest from the camera. Your subject is still at an angle relative to the camera, but the light is now on the far side of the face.
Depending exactly on the angle used, short lighting is good at creating definition in the face. While certainly not impossible, avoiding glare from glasses with short lighting is challenging. Short lighting can “thin” a face out – which is both good and bad depending on the look you are going for.
Portrait Lighting Setup 8: Fill Lighting
You can do a lot with just 1 light. However, you should decide whether or not you want to also use a fill light. Fill lighting doesn’t need to come from another light. Instead of adding a second light source as your fill, you can bounce light off your key light from a reflector and use that as your fill.
To use fill lighting effectively, it is helpful to understand the basics of lighting ratios. The larger the ratio is between two lights, the more pronounced the contrast between light and dark is. Lighting ratios can get technical very quickly for beginners. Just understand that you can create dynamic portraits with interesting contrast and depth by having your key light at one level of brightness and your fill lighting at a lower level of brightness. This can be measured in a couple of ways:
- With a light meter. If your light meter reads f/8 when you measure the part of your subject the key light is hitting and then it reads f/5.6 on the side where your fill light is hitting, then you know that your key is twice as bright as your fill. This is because f/5.6 to f/8 is 1 stop difference. Every stop of exposure is twice the amount of light.
- With the lights themselves (“eyeballing” it). Less precise than using a light meter, but suitable for beginners looking to get just a better feel for lighting. If your key flash or strobe is at ½ power and your fill flash or strobe is at ¼ power then you have your 2:1 ratio.
If your fill light is set to the same power as your key light, then the portrait will be flat and the lighting very even. Sometimes you want this but most of the time you want a little bit of definition. The quickest way to do that is to create contrast by letting the key light be the main star with the fill light merely being a supporting character.
Patience and Practice for Lighting Portraits
Portrait photography lighting requires practice. Find a patient model and shoot until you achieve your desired look. Remember to only change 1 thing at a time when practicing so that you don’t confuse yourself. Don’t change your model’s position and the light’s position at the same time – start with one change and take a test shot before changing anything else about your setup. The more you practice these lighting patterns, the quicker you’re on your way to creating stunning and unique portraits of your subjects.
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