Types of Portrait Photography Lighting

Creating the perfect lighting for your portrait photography shoot is crucial to the success of the shoot and images produced. It can be the difference between a great set of shots and a really bad set of shots. Though it doesn’t entirely come down to the professional lighting setup, it can also come down to the space you’re working it. If there is natural light peeping through, it can also throw off your lighting throughout the session. Or if you’re trying to work with natural light solely, it can be hard to harness to get the perfect images. Lighting patterns can help you harness artificial light to suit your photography style you’re aiming to achieve. In this article, we will break down the different types of lighting patterns and how to implement it in your portrait lighting setup to create the best portrait photography lighting for your sessions.

Types of photography lighting patterns

Each lighting pattern can be easily chosen as the best for your portrait session by first studying your subjects facial features. Do they have a flat nose? Or a rounded face? Or an ultra slim face? These are all things to consider before making a decision on what kind of lighting setups you want to create. Generally you don’t want to make the subject look wider than they are and therefore, your studio lighting techniques should reflect that. Over time, you will be able to identify which lighting pattern works best for certain subjects but that all comes with research and practice. The techniques below should help you with the research and implementation side of portrait photography.

Rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt Lighting

The name Rembrandt comes from the Dutch artist, Rembrandt who lived during the 17th century and created this technique. This type of lighting is replicated by creating a clear triangle of light between the subjects nose and cheekbone. This is known for it’s more dramatic impact and can be considered for moody portrait sessions rather than your average family photoshoot. This is easily created by placing the light off to the side of the subject and requesting your subject to turn away slightly from the light. To ensure that the shadow around the nose falls down towards the cheek, the light should be positioned above the head of the subject. This look is best realised with a subject that has high or prominent cheek bones and a well defined nose. If your subject has a small or flat nose, the results might be a bit more difficult to achieve. You can modify the shadow edge either softer or harder with the use of soft boxes, umbrella’s, a modifier or reflector to enhance your work.

Butterfly lighting & clamshell lighting

Butterfly Lighting

This lighting is achieved by creating a butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose of your subject. This is the kind of shot you will find in fashion magazines and headshots of movie stars. It is also a lighting technique that suits older subjects very well as it takes the emphasis away from wrinkles and focuses on the shadows under the cheeks and chin. Butterfly lighting is created simply by placing the photography lighting directly behind the camera and slightly above either the eye or head level of your subject. Sometimes the shadow under the nose can be too strong with this shot though. If this happens, you can have your subject hold a reflector directly under their chin. However, if this is still unachievable at this stage, you may need a hard light source like a flash or the sun. This will then help produce a more defined shadow under the nose for the desired effect. Though this shot is not recommended for subjects with round or wide faces as it can make someone’s face appear wider. Loop lighting or split lighting would be a better option for subjects with wider facial features. To turn your image into a clamshell lighting pattern, you can use a reflector or a small soft box underneath the camera with the base angled slightly towards the subject. This resembles an open clamshell from the side on, hence the name.

Loop lighting

Loop Lighting

This one is probably the most common form of photography lighting you will come across in the portrait photography world. Loop lighting is simple and creates a subtle, soft shadow from the subjects nose and across their cheek. Loop lighting is easy to create and master. This type of lighting pattern is also flattering on most people. Some photographers consider loop lighting to be the best photography lighting for portraits for this reason. To create this kind of studio lighting, the light source should be placed slightly above eye level and roughly 30-45 degrees away from the camera. Though the exact angling for the shot depends on the subjects face. A modelling lamp or a strobe light can also be considered as a tool to soften the shot across several loop lighting images. To create this lighting look, your light should be slightly above the eye level of the subject. A common mistake that beginners make is by placing the light down low and angled upwards. This result isn’t super flattering as it lights up the bottom of the subjects nose. Not somewhere you necessarily want to draw attention to.

Split lighting

Split Lighting

As the name suggests, split lighting literally splits the subjects face into equal halves. This half shadow effect can be a pretty dramatic shot, especially when using hard lighting. It can be a shot used to create moody shots for musicians and artists alike. This light work is best achieved by placing the light source 90 degrees either to the left or right of your subject. The lighting can even be moved slightly behind the subjects head if that works best. To achieve the best results, the only section of the “shadowed” face that should be lit up is the eye whereas the other eye should contain what is called a catchlight which is a bright spot of light that reflects from the source of light. If these tips for how to shoot the eyes is ignored, the eyes will then appear lifeless and it will ruin the entire shot. You can also play around with your camera settings to achieve your desired brightness, contrast and many more.

Broad lighting

Broad Lighting

Broad lighting can be used in conjunction with loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting or split lighting as it is considered more a style than a pattern unlike the other types of lighting listed. It’s often grouped with any of these three lighting patterns and we do consider it a staple of portrait photography so it’s a good one to master. Broad lighting is achieved when the face of the subject is slightly turned away from the camera and one side of the face is turned towards the camera and is lit up by the lighting setup. Like the name suggests, this type of lighting can make someone’s face appear broader or wider. Due to this, photography of this nature works best on subjects with very slim faces. With most people wanting to appear slimmer not wider, this type of lighting does not suit someone who is heavier or round in the face. It also works best for those who wear glasses as it does not have a major impact on the reflection of the person wearing the glasses. This is the standard type of shot that is taken for school portraits and corporate headshots.

Short lighting

Short Lighting

Short lighting is the complete opposite to broad lighting as outlined above and is when the side of the face is turned towards the camera and photographer which then becomes covered with a shadow while the other side of the face that is turned away from the camera is brightened. Using short lighting adds 3D qualities, is sculpting and slimming which is flattering for the majority of people. This is a useful pattern for moodier, darker shots that can become low-key portraits. If you want to create a short lighting setup, have your subject turn slightly towards the source of the lighting pattern. This allows for the shadows to fall on the side of the face closer to the portrait photographer. This type pf shot should be avoided for those subjects who wear glasses as it will create a glare, making this shot impossible to master for those who wear glasses. Short lighting also has a tendency to “thin” a person’s face which depending on the look you want, can be a good or bad thing.

It doesn’t take much to create seamless portraits with little effort or equipment but implementing these lighting techniques can help elevate your game in the photography space. As the saying goes “practice makes perfect” – we challenge you to practice some (or all) of these techniques and compare the difference between your old work and your current work now. Start small and with just one type of lighting pattern and once you have mastered that, continue onto the other types. We suggest you try loop lighting first as it suits most facial structures and is one of the simpler and versatile lighting patterns to master. Remember the key is to emphasise and flatter your subject’s features with your creative expression that your client will love. Don’t forget to study your subjects facial structure before jumping ahead to shooting. Ratios and angles are crucial to consider when it comes to portrait photography and once you understand how to create each different lighting pattern, you will know when and how to apply them to the appropriate subject. If the lighting pattern just doesn’t seem to be working, you can move the light source around provided it is artificial lighting not natural. If it’s a natural light, you can ask to move your subject around the lighting to get the desired shot. Don’t forget that you can adjust your camera position and settings if you’re still unhappy with the result. Just remember that you do not need to shoot in the same spot if you want something different or if the image that is being created is not the desired look you are after. You should use the tools around you to enhance the look.