What are portrait lighting patterns?
Lighting patterns in portrait photography are defined by the way light and shadow play across your subject’s face. They’re also sometimes called portrait lighting styles. How we position the light in relation to a person, or vice versa, will change the light pattern.
Good knowledge of portrait lighting patterns is essential for a successful colored light portrait photoshoot, to ensure the different colors fall on separate planes of your subject’s face.
What types of light can you use?
You can create the same patterns of portrait lighting with all sources of light. So it makes no difference if you use:
- Studio lighting
- Continuous lights
- Or natural light
Light will work the same way, regardless of the source of the light.
Here’s a really handy lighting cheat sheet you can download to help you remember where to place the light. You’ll see the benefit when we get into lighting patterns lower down the page.
Why use different portrait lighting patterns?
Just like with exposure and composition decisions, we need to make decisions on the lighting pattern we use to create a particular feel in a portrait photo.
The skill with portrait lighting is in knowing:
- What angles of light will create which portrait lighting patterns
- What type of feeling the lighting pattern will create
- Which lighting pattern would be the most flattering for your subject
Not only do different lighting patterns create different moods, some lighting patterns are considered more masculine and suited to photographing men and other lighting patterns are used more for women. However, the portrait lighting you use is entirely up to you and the look your subject wants to project.
Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere
5 portrait lighting patterns
So, now we know why we use different lighting patterns, let’s look at the 5 portrait lighting patterns every portrait photographer should know.
- Flat lighting
- Butterfly lighting
- Split lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
- Loop lighting
This is the starting point for great portrait photography. Once you know how to position the key (main) light, or your subject in relation to the key light, you can build your lighting set up from there and advance to more complicated portrait lighting.
1. Flat lighting pattern
This is the easiest portrait lighting pattern to create, because it simply requires the light to flow directly into your subject’s face without casting shadow.
Why use flat lighting?
Because with flat lighting there are no shadows, it is kind on faces with lines, bumps or scars. So, because flat light is flattering, it’s ideally suited to headshots, especially as they’re close up.
Light position for flat light
Place the light directly in front of your subject, slightly above eye level so that it shines straight at your subject’s face.
Using my downloadable lighting clock cheat sheet as a guide, if you imagine a clock face with the subject in the middle of the clock, both the light and the camera will be at the 6 o’clock position.
Be careful not to place the main light lower than their face, as it will shine up and create what is jokingly called “monster lighting”… because it’s really unflattering. Just shine a torch up at your face from beneath your chin and you’ll see what I mean.
With flat lighting using some form of fill light is essential to help with preventing shadows. Unlike the main light (aka key light), the fill light can be positioned lower than your subject, shining up, to reduce shadows under the chin.
Further reading: Understanding direction of light: how to use front lighting
Flat lighting with natural light
An easy way to create flat lighting indoors using natural light is to position your subject just inside an open doorway looking out at you, or in front of a window while you have your back to the window. There should be no direct sunlight shining in, unless it’s early or late in the day when the sun is at a very low angle.
Of course, you can use this lighting pattern outdoors with natural light as well. The image below was taken moments after the sun sank below the horizon.
Further reading: Best time of day for outdoor photography – portrait tips
Flat lighting after the sun had set.
Flat lighting with artificial light
Because you need to position your light directly in front of your subject, slightly above eye level and straight on to their face, a large light soft box or umbrella is ideal as you can stand in front of it.
2. Butterfly lighting pattern
The butterfly lighting pattern is also called paramount lighting, because it was the most popular way to light portraits of Hollywood actresses in the early days of film.
It’s also the lighting pattern you’ll see used most on magazine covers and beauty photography, which is why it’s also often called beauty lighting.
Why use butterfly lighting?
Butterfly lighting is great for women and is fantastic for sculpting the face as it creates shadows beneath the cheekbones and jawline.
Like flat lighting, to create butterfly lighting the light is positioned in front of your subject. However, it’s placed higher and angled down towards the subject.
The angle of the light creates a small shadow under your subject’s nose. This shadow is said to look like a butterfly, which is why it’s called butterfly lighting. Personally, I don’t think the shadow looks much like a butterfly, but others do.
Butterfly lighting with natural light
Creating a butterly lighting pattern with natural light is hard on your subject, because the sun will be shining directly in their eyes. Either they’ll squint into the light, or, if their eyes are light sensitive, they might not be able to keep their eyes open.
A trick to get around this is to ask your subject to keep their eyes shut and on the count of three to open their eyes, look directly at you for a couple of seconds and close them again.
Butterfly lighting with artificial light
Position your light on a light stand directly in front of your subject, a foot or so above their head and angled down at 45 degrees.
You can use a reflector or another (less bright) light beneath their chin, angled up to soften the shadows. This is called clamshell lighting and you would photograph from the gap between the top and bottom light.
Further reading: Butterfly lighting for portraits – how and when to use it
3. Split lighting pattern
The name gives this one away. When only one half of a person’s face is lit, either right or left, the lighting pattern is split lighting.
Further reading: What is split lighting in portrait photography – how to use it and why
Why use split lighting?
Split lighting is a moody, masculine lighting pattern, so you won’t very often see it used with women. Because the light skims across the face, it highlights muscle tone and texture.
Use split lighting for a head and shoulders portrait to create a strong, assertive image with your subject looking straight to camera.
Position the light at 90 degrees to the side of your subject – that’s either 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock on the lighting clock cheat sheet mentioned earlier.
Further reading: Direction of light – how to use side light
Split lighting with natural light
If indoors, place your subject at right angles to a window without direct sunlight. Most of the window must be behind him so that only a small section of window is next to him.
Photographing outdoors, time of day would have a big impact on using natural light to create a split lighting pattern as you’ll need the sun to be low in the sky.
Split lighting with artificial light
Place your light on a stand facing your subject at 90 degrees to the side and slightly behind your subject. Have your subject look directly at the camera in front of them.
Although it’s not always possible, it’s good to get a slight catchlight in the eye on the shadow side of the face.
4. Rembrandt lighting pattern
Named after the painter, because of the lighting pattern he used most on his subjects.
Rembrandt lighting is defined by one side of the face being lit and with just a small triangle of light on the shadow side of the face below the eye.
Because a Rembrandt lighting pattern is created by the nose shadow joining the cheek shadow, it varies from person to person depending on the size and shape of their nose.
Why use Rembrandt lighting?
Again, this type of lighting is predominantly used on men, but not as much as the split lighting pattern.
The light is positioned half way between the side and the front of your subject, so about 4 o’clock or 8 o’clock on the lighting clock cheat sheet. It’s slightly higher than the subject and shines down at a 45 degree angle.
Rembrandt lighting with natural light
If you’re indoors and have a high window, you’re in a perfect position to recreate Rembrandt lighting, just like the great master painter.
Time of day will determine the lighting pattern when using direct light outdoors. Mid afternoon and mid morning are good times for using Rembrandt lighting outdoors in direct sunlight.
Rembrandt lighting with artificial light
Position your light 45 – 60 degrees to the side of your subject, about a foot above their head and angled 45 degrees down.
Make sure that the light isn’t too high for a catchlight to show in the lit eye. Without a catchlight in the eye, the image falls flat.
Further reading: Rembrandt lighting – what is it and how is it set up?
5. Loop lighting pattern
Loop lighting is similar to Rembrandt lighting, except that the shadow caused by the nose does not join with the shadow of the cheek. It creates just a small nose shadow to the side and slightly below the nose on the opposite side of the face from the light.
Why use loop lighting?
Loop lighting is the most natural looking light pattern and how we expect to see people.
It’s open, friendly and without the mystery of Rembrandt lighting or the moodiness of split lighting. Loop lighting offers more definition than flat lighting, but is not as striking as beauty lighting.
So, the loop lighting pattern is a good all round lighting pattern to use.
Place the light more than half way between the side and the front of of your subject, closer to the front. Going back to my lighting clock cheat sheet, the light should be between 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock or between 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock.
Loop lighting with natural light
Photograph in the early morning or late afternoon with direct sunlight for a loop lighting pattern with natural light.
Loop lighting with artificial light
The placement of your lighting is similar to Rembrandt, but further round to the front of your subject at about 30 – 45 degrees and slightly lower so that the light is just above eye level.
Further reading: Essential loop lighting tips for portrait photography
Important point on portrait lighting patterns
Your lighting position is relative to your subject’s face, not to where you are positioned. If your subject turns their head, the lighting pattern will change.
The image above was taken within seconds of the below image. The model moved her head, so the lighting pattern changed from loop lighting (above) to short lighting (below).
Further reading: Short lighting and broad lighting for portrait photography
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