6 Classic Portrait Photography Lighting Setups
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Portrait Photography Lighting
Taking a high-quality portrait isn't just a matter of having a nice camera, a good lens, and a pretty model.
If only it were that easy!
Instead, there are all sorts of other considerations to make.
You have to think about the setting of the photo shoot and how it might help (or hinder) your ability to create a nice portrait.
There's the background to worry about, too: Is it too busy? Does it distract the viewer's eye? Is it too plain and boring?
Of course, one crucial aspect of portrait photography hasn't been listed yet...
But there's more to lighting a portrait than simply having light. You need to think about the pattern of light as well.
In this tutorial, we take a look at six classic lighting patterns, each of which can help you create a distinctive portrait.
A Quick Definition
Before we dive into the six different options for lighting patterns, we need to come to an agreement regarding what a lighting pattern is in the first place.
If we're going for a quick and easy definition, a lighting pattern can be described as the manner in which light interacts with a model's facial features to create areas of light and shadow.
The key feature that differentiates each pattern is the shape of the shadow that's created on the model's face. In each instance, the shapes of those shadows are unique and completely change the look and feel of the portrait depending on which one is used.
There are two styles of lighting of which to be aware - short and broad.
There are also four patterns of lighting you need to be familiar with: butterfly, split, loop, and Rembrandt.
Let's examine each in more detail.
When using short lighting, the light source is used to cast a shadow on the side of the model's face that's nearest the camera, as seen in the image above.
In this case, the model has turned her face toward the light source, which is to her right.
As a result, her right cheek is illuminated while her left cheek is in shadow.
That large area of shadowing on her left cheek is the hallmark of short lighting - with this lighting style, the largest area of the face will appear in shadow.
A great way to achieve this look is to use an off-camera hot-shoe flash mounted to a tripod.
For the image above, the flash would be positioned to the model's right. However, because the light needs to be softened, it's a good idea to soften that light with a diffuser.
Unlike short lighting, broad lighting is a style of lighting that results in the shadow appearing on the model's far cheek, as seen above.
You can see how the subject is now looking away from the light, which is positioned to her right, our left.
As a result of this, there is a large area of light on the right side of her face and a shadowed area on the left side of her face.
Note as well that with broad lighting, the area that's illuminated is typically larger and the shadowed area is usually smaller than if narrow lighting is used, though that isn't always the case.
Broad lighting also has the effect of widening a subject's face. This makes it a useful tool when photographing people that have an especially slim face.
But just as was seen in the example of short lighting previously, in broad lighting, the light is still very soft and diffused.
When you look at the portrait above, you can see why butterfly lighting is named as such.
If you look closely, there is a butterfly-shaped shadow under the model's nose.
This is achieved by positioning the primary light above and behind the camera, such that it is placed directly above the photographer.
With the light falling on the model from slightly above, the butterfly shadow appears under her nose, with some shadows present under her chin as well. But because the light is also positioned directly in front of her, most other shadows are minimized for a clean, even look.
This type of lighting style is typically used for glamor and fashion portraits. It's also a popular option for older models because the frontlighting helps to minimize the appearance of wrinkles.
Split lighting is named as such because the lighting splits the face into two equal sides, one illuminated and the other in shadow.
This lighting pattern is typically used to created portraits that are dramatic with a lot of depth, like the one seen above.
Split lighting is easy to set up - just put the light at a 90-degree angle to the subject. In the case of the image above, the light is 90-degrees to the model's right.
When placing the light, be sure to think about how the model's face is structured. To be true split lighting, the eye on the shadowed side of the face should actually be illuminated.
However, not everyone's nose allows for this. Try turning the model's head more toward the light, but if the light illuminates more than the eye on the shadowed side (i.e., their cheek), split lighting in its purest form won't work with that particular model.
The beauty of split lighting is that you can simply use natural lighting to get a great effect. Even if it's slightly overcast out, there should be enough sunlight if you position the model at a 90-degree angle to the sun to get enough shadowing on the far side of their face to get a nice split lighting effect.
When using loop lighting, you'll notice small shadows from the model's nose on his or her cheek.
To create these shadows, the light source is placed just above eye level and at around 45-degrees from the camera.
In the image above, you can see how the shadow from her nose extends onto her left cheek. However, note that the shadow from her nose does not touch the shadow created by her cheek.
By keeping the nose shadow small, you create the nice loop-sized area of light on the model's upper cheek.
Naturally, since everyone has a different nose and cheek structure, you'll have to play with the angle of light and the manner in which the model is posed to get the precise loop lighting you want.
To get this type of look, try an outdoor photo shoot in which the sun is behind your subject, and your subject is in the shade. Then, use a reflector to bounce light onto the subject's faces from a slightly higher position than their eyes. Remember also to try to maintain the positioning of the reflector at a 45-degree angle to the camera.
Rembrandt lighting involves a triangle of light on the model's cheek.
This is similar in look to loop lighting, but in this case, the shadow of the nose and the shadow of the cheek touch to create the triangle of light you see on the model's left cheek above.
When setting up a Rembrandt lighting pattern, pay close attention to the eye on the shadowed side of the face as it actually needs to catch the light. If it doesn't, the eye will look deep and dark, and that's not a good look!
To setup Rembrandt lighting, place the light source above the model's head such that the shadow of their nose comes downward toward their cheek. Manipulate the model's pose until you see the hallmark triangle of light on the off-side of their face.
Like other lighting patterns, Rembrandt lighting is not ideally suited for everyone. For example, models with very high cheekbones of very small noses typically won't work for this particular pattern of lighting.
Get a quick overview of most of these lighting patterns and see them in action in the video below from Ed Verosky:
Like just about everything else in photography, when it comes to using these lighting patterns and styles, there are exceptions to the rule.
If you can't achieve the precise look as prescribed by these lighting schemes, that's okay!
Be willing to experiment with the placement of the light source, the angle to which your model is looking at the light, and the angle from which you take the portrait.
Nothing says you have to replicate these lighting patterns exactly. In the end, what's important is that you have these lighting patterns and styles at your disposal; if you have to tweak them to meet your needs, do so!
Many of the best photographs in the world were taken by breaking or bending one rule or another. Don't be afraid to be a rule breaker as well. Your photos can benefit from that just as much as they can from following the rules.
Furthermore, remember that you can use just about any type of lighting to achieve any of these looks.
As noted throughout the article, natural lighting, natural lighting plus reflectors, and diffused light are all options for many of the lighting schemes discussed above.
All that's left now is for you to experiment with each one!