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5 Fundamental Lighting Patterns for Portrait Photography


Good, proper lighting brings out the details, mood and adds depth to portraitures. If you’re new to shooting human subjects and is looking for tricks and tips to achieving a stunning shot, knowing these 5 easy lighting patterns will come in handy. Download the easy-to-digest infographic below and read the full article as we share on the characteristics of each lighting patterns, the mood it brings and its basic setup. 

Split Lighting

Characteristics: Split lighting is identified by the half-lit-half-unlit effect. The shadows cast are often harsh to achieve a big contrast between the different sides of the face. The details on the unlit face may even be blacked out completely by the shadows.

Set-up: The light source is placed at a 90 degree angle to either side of the subject’s face. This technique is recommended to be used with just a single source to achieve full dramatic quality.

Pros: Portraitures with shadows covering large areas on the face add mystery to the subject. This is due to the blacking out of facial features which will lead the viewers to conjure the full subject’s appearance with their imagination. It also amplifies the idea of the ‘dark’ side or darkness when used in films.

Rembrandt Lighting 

Characteristics: Named after the Dutch artist, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, due to his usage between light and shadow value in his artworks, Rembrandt lighting is a popular lighting pattern for portraitures and paintings alike. It is identified by a triangle of light formed underneath the eyes at the unlit side of the face.

Setup: Place the light source at a 45 to 60 degree angle facing towards the subject. You should also pivot the light source to a top-down 45 degree angle to shine down on the subject’s face. You can position a reflector to reflect light at the unlit side of the face to increase exposure. Tip: Experiment by tilting the subject’s face or changing the angle of the light source to alter and suit the shape and size of the triangle that you like. The light intensity, distance of the light from the subject and the material of diffuser and layers of the diffuser will also affect the vibrancy of the light triangle.

Pros: Rembrandt lighting creates a lot of drama and mood due to the contrast of light and dark. As suggested in the artist’s artwork, it is best done in a darker, low-light environment to make the shot even more compelling and mysterious.

Butterfly Lighting 

Characteristics: You can identify Butterfly lighting by a shadow outline similar to a butterfly formed under the nose.

Setup: The light source is placed above and directly behind the camera. The light will shine down on the subject’s face and cast a shadow under the nose.

Pros: Living up to the beautiful representation of butterflies, Butterfly lighting are very slimming on the face and often creates a small-face effect. Shadows form under the protruding contours of the face (cheekbones, brow ridge and jawline) to scale down the broadness. It is heavily utilised in beauty shots and fashion portraitures.

Broad lighting 

Characteristics: The well-lit side of the face is bigger than the shaded area and is often accompanied by a slight face tilt from the subject. Broad lighting is the opposite of Short lighting.

Setup: The setup is simple. The light source is placed at a 45 degree angle, the subject faces away from the light source at an approximately 75 degree angle.

Pros: Broad lighting widens the face. It is useful for subjects whose face are narrower and would want to have the perception of a fuller face. Tip: take note that the shadows will be cast on the face furthest from the light source and should be taken into consideration to which profile you would want to feature best for the subject.

Short lighting

Characteristic: The well-lit side of the face is small and narrow as compared to the unlit area. Short lighting is also the opposite of Broad lighting.

Setup: The light source is placed at a 45 degree angle. The subject tilts his or her head towards the light source slightly. Some light can reach the darker side of the face but will be most prominent in the narrow side of the face.

Pros: When angled well, the subject’s face will appear slimmer with this lighting as the shadow will cover the broader side of the face. The vast amount of shadows also add mystery and character to the shot.

Now that you know these 5 basic lighting patterns, flip through a magazine and apply your knowledge by identifying them yourself. It is a great way to familiarise yourself through these small visual practices before attempting yourself. When attempting these lighting patterns, be ready to shift your subjects or lighting equipment around as the shadows formed will differ with every small little change. Additionally, don’t stop with these 5 examples. Research on other even more-advanced lighting patterns online to gain an even deeper understanding and knowledge in portrait photography. 

Download a copy of this infographic here.