How to Use Split Lighting for Portraits
Photo by Petr Ovralov on Unsplash
When looking into portrait lighting setups, we come across many one-light portrait tips. Split lighting is one of the more commonly used lighting configurations for portrait photography.
What Is Split Lighting?
Split lighting illuminates one side of the subject’s face, leaving the other side in shadow. In its purest sense, the light is perpendicular to the person compared to the camera position.
Of course, there are also variations to this portrait lighting setup, including posing options, adding extra lights or reflectors, and exposure settings.
How To Set Up Split Lighting
As mentioned earlier, in its most simple form, split lighting can be done with one light. It really doesn’t matter if that single light is a strobe or a continuous light, but if you’ve recently started exploring portrait lighting setups, a continuous light will make it easy to see what’s going on.
A compact portable lamp such as the Hakutatz LED light makes the operation simple. You can even use it with your iPhone for iPhoneography portraits. In other words, you can start using advanced portrait techniques with any type of camera, from smartphones to full frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
Here is an arrangement that works well: Using a short telephoto lens (or a zoom lens with that focal length range), mount your camera to a tripod and frame your photo so that you have a head and shoulders pose. A short telephoto lens and framing for head and shoulders is a basic method for capturing flattering images of people.
A bar stool for the subject will make them more comfortable when posing. Have your subject face the camera and place the light to their side, lined up with one of their shoulders. In your captured images, you have a visual definition of split lighting.
Above is a nice video by Robert Silver Photography illustrating a simple one-light lighting portrait setup for split lighting.
Editor's Note: The Hakutatz Kickstarter campaign was a huge success! Their Amazon store will be open and ready for orders soon.
Add Variety to Your Portrait Lighting
photo by Casarsa via iStock
One of the first things you are likely to notice is that merely raising your single light a little bit adds some flattering modeling effects.
Adjusting subject posing adds subtle improvements as well. Since you’ve put your subject on a stool, there are a lot of poses they should be comfortable doing. Turn the model’s torso about 45 degrees towards the light and have them turn only their head to face the camera. Then reverse that with the torso turned away from the light.
photo by RonTech2000 via iStock
Now, let’s play with the light position. Moving the light closer to the camera position softens the effect of chiaroscuro (lighting for contrast and drama) in your final image. Moving the light further away, somewhat behind the subject, increases the Chiaroscuro effect, adding drama.
One Light, Two Light, White Light, Blue Light
Have fun with portrait lighting and play around with it. Using a small, portable light like the Hakutatz LED light, which gives you an array of controls right from your smartphone, you have some great options for adding interest to your portraits.
As an example, try this out: Take one light and place it in the split lighting position, perhaps a little higher up and slightly closer to the camera position. Use a second lamp behind your subject. Lower the intensity of that lamp and change the color output. Red, blue, yellow, whatever works with your model and your ideas.
What this will accomplish is to add visual interest to your composition. This especially might work with environmental portraits, for artists, for cosplayers, and so on. It will also allow your average Joe or Jane to act out or roleplay in the sessions. Making it fun almost always results in great images.
photo by standret via iStock
As another variation, place the second light much closer to the camera position, with the brightness reduced by 1/3rd or 1/4th from full power of the main side light. The chiaroscuro will be lessened quite a bit, but the end result will also be softer overall, possibly more flattering for certain subjects. A reflector will also work fine for this portrait lighting setup.
How To Expose for Split Lighting
photo by Ranta Images via iStock
Previsualization is the key. Know what you want the end result to be and work back from that goal to accomplish it.
The first thing I like to consider is if I’m trying for a high key effect, which would generally also be less contrasty, or a low key, higher contrast effect.
Both high key and low key are capable of producing outstanding portraits, but there is definitely a mood difference in the two techniques’ results. High key tends towards a light, airy mood, playful even, while low key lends itself to the dramatic, somber or serious, with glamour and beauty also being capable of being highlighted.
Photo by Riki on Unsplash
Let’s examine another example: Couples portraits. High key might be perceived as playful, peaceful, family oriented, and so on. Low key couples portraits can become intense, romantic, with a fictional air. Experiment, get used to seeing how your images turn out in relation to your initial expectations.
To expose properly for a high key portrait, you will take meter readings from the shadow side of the subject. For low key, meter the lit side. You want the shadows to open up for high key, the highlights might even burn out, which is fine. You want to create contrast for the low key while preserving detail in the highlights.
If you are seeking a medium, more balanced, less extreme medium key effect, average out your readings, adjust the lights for optimal positioning, and go from there. I recommend shooting in RAW if your camera has that capability, because it provides more digital information to use when tweaking or adjusting in your post processing program.
Other Lighting Techniques
Split lighting is merely one of several basic techniques or lighting configurations for portraits and other subjects. I think it’s probably one of the easiest to accomplish and the quickest to master, too.
Whatever type of camera you’re using or what you use for lights, get out there and try split lighting for your next portrait.