5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know for better photos

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 particularly 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
  • Speedlights
  • Continuous lights
  • Or natural light

Light will work the same way, regardless of the source of the light. 

How to set your lights for portrait photography

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 in photos, 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.

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.

  1. Flat lighting
  2. Butterfly lighting
  3. Split lighting
  4. Rembrandt lighting
  5. Loop lighting

This is the starting point for great portrait photography. Once you know how to position the key light (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

Flat light is the easiest portrait lighting pattern to create, because it simply requires the light to flow directly into your subject’s face from the front without casting shadow.

Why use flat lighting?

Because with flat lighting there are no shadows, it’s 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 portraits.

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’ll shine up and create what’s 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.

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. Although it’s very short, it’s the best time of day for flat lighting outdoors.

Natural light flat lighting with no shadows

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 softbox or photography umbrella is ideal as you can stand in front of it.

Flat lighting pattern using strobes

I used a large softbox directly in front of the child (as you can see from the catchlights in her eyes) for flat light with no shadows

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.

Light position

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.

Beauty lighting is also called butterfly lighting pattern

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.

Beauty lighting pattern with strobes

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.

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.

Light position

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.

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 light with natural light indoors

Split lighting with artificial light

For a split lighting pattern 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.

Split lighting patter with flash lights

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.

Light position

Position the light 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 style with natural light

Rembrandt lighting with artificial light

For a Rembrandt lighting pattern 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.

Rembrandt lighting style in the studio with strobes

5. Loop lighting pattern

Loop lighting is similar to Rembrandt lighting, except that the shadow caused by the nose doesn’t 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.

Light position

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.

How to use loop lighting for portraits

Loop lighting with artificial light

For a loop lighting pattern the placement of your lighting is similar to Rembrandt lighting, 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.

Loop lighting pattern with strobes

Important point on portrait lighting patterns

Your lighting position is relative to your subject’s face, not to where you’re positioned. If your subject turns their head, the lighting pattern will change.

Loop light pattern with direct natural light

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 beauty lighting in a short lighting style (below).

Short lighting pattern with direct sunlight

How to modify lighting patterns

You can modify three of the five portrait lighting patterns mentioned in this tutorial to suit your subject’s face by using either short or broad lighting

  • Short lighting – slims faces and is more shadowy so therefore dramatic
  • Broad lighting – widens narrow faces and has fewer shadows, so is more suited to light and airy photography

Use short or broad lighting with:

  • Split lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Loop lighting

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If you have any questions about portrait lighting patterns let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand how to position your subject and your lighting for portrait photography, share that too.

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