6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know

by Clarence D. Staley

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. I suggest you get to know these basics inside out, and as with most things, then you can break the rules. But if you can nail this one thing you’ll be well on your way to great people photos. In this article we’re going to look at lighting pattern: what is it, why it’s important, and how to use it. Perhaps in another future article, if you enjoy this one, I’ll talk about the other aspects of good portraiture.

Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly 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.

1. Split Lighting

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 things such as 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 on men than it is for women. Keep in mind however, there are no hard and fast rules, so I suggest you use the information I provide here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the guideline whenever you’re not sure.

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 in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In true 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 face 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 face to maintain the lighting pattern. If they turn their head the pattern will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the patten just by them rotating their head a little.

What the heck is a “catchlight”?

Notice in this photo above that the baby’s eyes have a reflection of the actual light source in them. It shows up as a little white spot, but if we look closer we can actually see the shape of the light I used in this portrait.

See how the bright spot is actually hexagon with a dark centre? That’s the light I used which was a small hexagon shaped soft box on my Canon speedlight.

This is what is known as the “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.

2. Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subjects 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).

Look at this image to see where the shadows fall, and on their left sides you can see a small shadow of their noses. In loop lighting the shadow of the nose and that of the cheek do NOT touch. Keep the shadow small and slightly downward pointing, but be aware of having your light source too high which will create odd shadows and cause loss of the catchlights. Loop light is probably the most common or popular lighting pattern as it is easy to create and flatters most people.

In this diagram the black backdrop represents the bank of trees behind them. The sun is coming over the trees but they are completely in the shade. A white reflector is used at camera left to bounce light back into the subjects’ faces. The reflector may or may not be in the sun but you can still pick up light even if it’s not. Just play with the angles, by changing the placement of the reflector you can change the lighting pattern. For Loop lighting it will need to be somewhere around 30-45 degrees from the camera. It also needs to be slightly above their eye level so the shadow or loop of their nose angles down towards the corner of the mouth. That is one mistake I often see beginners make with reflectors is to place them down low and angle it up. That lights up the bottom of your subject’s nose and does not create a flattering pattern.

3. Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the painter often used this pattern of light 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 create 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 eye will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle. Rembrandt lighting is more dramatic, so like split lighting it 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 down towards the cheek. Not every person’s face is ideal for creating Rembrandt lighting. If they have high or prominent cheek bones 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 exactly 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 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.

4. Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting is aptly named for the butterfly shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. The photographer is basically 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.

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