Traditional portrait lighting is the foundation of all good portraiture. This is something I stress in several of my eBooks, and in this post, I’ll describe the five basic lighting patterns and include a video for reference. I hope you find it useful.
The five lighting patterns are listed here:
- Short Lighting: good for most subjects
- Broad Lighting: when you want to make a narrow face look fuller
- Rembrandt Lighting: very classic, dramatic
- Split Lighting: one half of the face is in light, the other in shadow
- Butterfly Lighting: glamorous, old Hollywood, forgiving lighting
There are plenty of other lighting styles which build upon these basic patterns, but everything starts with the main light as described in the sections that follow.
1) Short Lighting
Short lighting is often used as a corrective technique to help make rounder faces look a little thinner. In this lighting pattern the main light illuminates the subject on the shorter side of the face, where the distance seems shorter from nose to ear (or nose to the edge of the cheek), from the camera’s perspective. Another way to think about this is that when the subject has her head turned to one side, you are lighting the side of the face that is farthest from the camera.
2) Broad Lighting
Here the main light illuminates the subject on the broadest area of the face, from the camera’s perspective. When the subject has her head turned to one side, you are lighting the side of the face that is closest to the camera. This lighting pattern simply places visual emphasis on the area of the face turned toward the camera–the area more in-line with the camera axis.
3) Rembrandt Lighting
This lighting pattern, named after the Old Master painter, has a very classical look. The main light is positioned high and to one side of the subject creating a shadow from the nose that meets with the shadow from the side of the face opposite the light. The generally recognized definition of Rembrandt lighting, where photography is concerned, prescribes the use of the main light on one side of the subject’s face in just the right position as to create a triangle, or diamond shape, of light on the shadow side just underneath the eye, to extend down toward the mouth.
4) Split Lighting
Here, the main light is positioned to illuminate one side of the head while casting a full shadow on the other side (think of the center of the nose as marking the border). Split lighting visually divides your subject into light and dark areas of the image. If your subject is facing the camera directly when split lighting is employed, their face is likely to have a distinct shadow cutting vertically right down the center. The effect is rather dramatic and a low-key but high-contrast image is the typical result. Of course, you can change the ratio of the “split” by altering the position of the light or camera. Contrast can be adjusted, too, but as you increase the fill lighting, or widen your tonal range between light and shadow, you’ll lessen the effect of the split.
5) Butterfly Lighting
Butterfly lighting also known as Hollywood, Glamour, or Paramount lighting is identified by the butterfly shaped shadow that appears directly beneath the subject’s nose. It’s reminiscent of Old Hollywood glamour photos and can be very dramatic. The main light is placed in front of, and somewhat above, the subject in order to create this look.
Keep in mind that each of these lighting patterns is often combined with fill lighting or other lights to create many different looks. Try experimenting starting with the basic 45/45 lighting position and move the light and/or your subject in order to reproduce the patterns described above, and shown in the video. Don’t forget that a lighting setup shouldn’t dictate your posing, it’s just a good place to start.