Broad lighting photography techniques for stunning portraits

Broad lighting photography is a portrait lighting style for all types of lighting, whether it’s natural light, flash or continuous light. Portrait photographers use broad lighting to flatter subjects and create atmosphere by modifying lighting patterns, such as split, Rembrandt and loop lighting.

Because all faces are different, good portrait photography is knowing which portrait lighting setup will suit your subject and achieve the look you want.

Portrait photography lighting techniques:

  • Create mood
  • Flatter your subject
  • Bring out your subject’s character

Definition of broad lighting photography

Broad lighting is a portrait lighting style where the key light illuminates the broad side of the face, the side closest to camera, creating shadow on the side furthest from camera.

Broad lighting, like short lighting, is used to modify portrait lighting patterns to flatter the subject and create atmosphere. However, short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting and illuminates the side of the face furthest from camera for a completely different look.

Broad lighting is used unintentionally most often by beginner portrait photographers, because in the beginning we don’t think about photographing from the shadow side of the subject.

woman leaning on gray wall using broad lighting techniques

In this broad lighting example I positioned the model in the shade for a natural light portrait with the sun skimming past as a hair light

Benefits of broad lighting in portrait photography

Broad lighting creates lighter images, often with a more upbeat mood, because shadows fall on the side of the subject’s face away from camera. Benefits of broad lighting photography include:

1. Broad lighting widens faces

Broad lighting is flattering for a subject with a narrower face, because light fills in shadows and makes their face look wider.

That doesn’t mean that the purpose of every broad-lit portrait is to widen a narrow face, because it also creates mood without being overly dramatic, even with wide faces. It all depends on the purpose of the portrait.

1. Flatter and hide facial features

Broad lighting draws attention to the lit side of the face and can hide features on the shadow side of the face.

2. Create depth with shadows

Broad lighting adds subtle depth and form to a subjects’s features by casting light on the near side of the face with shadows on the far side.

3. Add subtle drama to portraits

Because broad lighting is less dramatic than short lighting, it’s useful for adding subtle drama without going full on moody. The moody shadows are furthest from camera and the upbeat lit side of the face is more dominant.

man leaning against wall lit by natural light

I used natural light only in open shade towards the end of the day for this soft light example of broad lighting. If you look carefully you can just make out the nose shadow on the far side of this face. As the shadow joins with the shadow of the model’s cheek, it’s a Rembrandt lighting pattern.

How to use broad lighting photography

Broad lighting techniques are all about how the light falls on the subject and what a portrait photographer can do to change basic lighting patterns.

Manipulating the angle of light

Three ways skilled portrait photographers alter portrait lighting patterns include:

1. Direction of light

When you change the horizontal angle of the light in a basic setup, you change where shadows and highlights fall on portrait subjects.

With portrait lighting, when the key light is more on axis (i.e. closest to camera), fewer shadows are created, making the image less dramatic. So, to create drama you need to take the lighting off axis. In other words, move it to the side and away from the camera.

2. Height of light

The height of the light in relation to the subject also affects the type of shadows cast on a subject’s face. Raising the light makes shadows more angular and pointing down.

3. Photographer’s position in relation to the subject

As you move around a portrait subject you’ll notice different shadows and highlights on their face. So by photographing from the opposite side of the subject you can completely change a lighting setup from broad lighting to short, without changing the lighting.

Or if the subject turns their head the other way, like in the example further down the page.

Female portrait outside with broad lighting setup

Example of broad lighting using the loop lighting pattern, which you can see from the nose shadow on the far side of the model’s face. I used a combination of ambient light and strobes outdoors in shade for this portrait in the afternoon. Short lighting would have been more flattering as she has a round face.

Portrait lighting patterns for broad lighting photography

Portrait lighting patterns can be used with both natural light and artificial light. The only difference is that with natural light you move the subject in relation to the light and with flash photography you can position the lights around the subject.

Portrait lighting patterns that can be modified by broad lighting setups are:

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

1. Split lighting with a short lighting setup

Split lighting involves positioning the light source directly to one side of the subject’s face, casting half the face in shadow. Make sure that light creates a catchlight in both of the subject’s eyes. Without a catchlight on the dark side the eye will look lifeless.

For broad lighting split light, position yourself on the lit the side of the subject. The same side as the light.

2. Rembrandt lighting with a short lighting setup

For Rembrandt lighting place the light source more to the front at a 45-degree angle to the subject’s face, higher up pointing down. The subject’s nose blocks part of the light falling on their face, casting a shadow onto the dark side of the face that joins with the cheek shadow. This creates the distinctive triangle of light below the eye on the shadow side.

For a broad lit Rembrandt lighting pattern, position yourself on the lit the side of the subject. The same side as the light.

3. Loop lighting with a short lighting setup

Loop lighting brings the light further around to the front of the subject, still positioned higher up and pointing down. The subject’s nose partially blocks light falling on the face, so the nose shadow is small and extends only slightly onto the cheek, often angled downwards. With more light on the shadowed side of the face, loop lighting is less dramatic than Rembrandt lighting.

For a broad lighting loop pattern, position yourself on the lit the side of the subject. The same side as the light.

4. Butterfly lighting with a broad lighting setup

Butterfly lighting is a form of front lighting with the light source above and angled down to the subject’s face. It’s identified by a butterfly shaped nose shadow just below the nose and is used a lot in beauty photography.

For broad lighting with butterfly light, move to the shadow side of the subject to photograph with their face angled towards the light and their eyes looking back to camera. You can see an example of this further down.

natural light broad lighting vs short lighting examples

With these two images you can see how quickly you can change from short lighting (left) to broad lighting (right) just by the model moving her head. On the left the lighting pattern is butterfly light and on the right it’s split light. We photographed this in the open shade of a covered walkway at midday with natural light coming in from camera right, so it works the same way as photographing indoors next to a large window.

Broad lighting techniques for natural light

Although you can’t control natural light, you can choose where and when to use it. You also have several different ways to manipulate natural lighting.

Natural light techniques for broad lighting:

  • Photograph in open shade for soft light
  • Photograph in direct sunlight for hard light
  • Choose the right time of day for photos based on the angle of the sun in the sky
  • Adjust your camera’s white balance, for shade, direct sunlight or cloudy conditions

Using Window Light

Use window light in a broad lighting setup for natural light portraits indoors with soft light. Here’s how:

  • Choose a window with no direct light shining to ensure soft light
  • Position your subject next to the window and looking into the room so that light falls across the broader side of the face, closest to camera, then adjust their position slightly for the lighting pattern you want
  • Use a reflector to reduce shadows for a light and airy look
  • Soften light even further by hanging a sheer curtain or white sheet over the window to diffuse the light

Using Direct Sunlight

Use direct sunlight for broad lighting subjects with hard light, indoors or outdoors. Here’s how:

  • Position your subject so that the sun shines on the side closest to camera
  • Time of day determines the angle of the sun and therefore the lighting pattern, but you can shift the subject slightly to change between Rembrandt light and loop light
  • For split lighting, photograph at the start or end of the day
  • For softer, lighter shadows, use a reflector to bounce light back into their face
  • If the light is too harsh, use a diffuser to soften it

broad lighting and short lighting portrait examples with flash

These examples of broad vs short lighting are much easier to see, because of the high lighting ratio that creates the deeper shadows. Believe it or not, we did this outside using a streetlight for ambient light balanced with one of my studio strobes in the beauty lighting position. Because the model has a slim face, she looks good with both types of lighting, but the short lighting (right) sculpts her features more.

Broad lighting strobe techniques

Using flash and continuous lights puts you in charge of the lighting, because you can position it where you need for the look you want to create.

With artificial lighting you can:

Flash lighting in particular is more difficult to learn than continuous lighting or natural light photography. However, being able to photograph anywhere, any time makes it very worthwhile!

Control light for studio portraits

Another advantage of using artificial lighting is that you can use different light modifiers for the look you want. Some options are:

  • Create soft lighting with a variety of softboxes in different sizes and shapes, different photography umbrellas, or scrims
  • Create hard lighting with studio strobes used bare bulb or with a metal reflector fitted to the front the light
  • Prevent light from spilling onto the background, or parts of the subject you don’t want lit, with a grid or barn doors

Use one or more light sources

You don’t need several light sources for broad lighting as you can create a basic broad lighting setup with a single source of light for the portrait lighting patterns mentioned above.

However, to take your image up a level, try adding a second light source to:

Woman against purple wall using broad lighting

I used the setting sun as a rim light for separation and drama and my Profoto B10X with beauty dish to camera left as the key light in this two light broad lighting setup. The model is slim with a long, narrow face and although she looks great with both types of lighting, broad lighting works well to widen her face in photos.

Essential knowledge for multi-light setups

The three key elements you need to understand for using more than a single light source in broad lighting setups are:

  • Key light
  • Fill light
  • Lighting ratios

All three elements work together for well balanced images with interesting lighting.

Key light in portrait photography

The key light, also called the main light, is the primary light source in photography lighting. In portrait photography it illuminates the subject’s face and sets the tone for the image.

The key light is the most important light in any portrait lighting setup.

Significance of fill light

For lighter shadows, add a fill light for a two light setup to fill in the shadows created by the main light source. Fill lighting can be positioned on the opposite side of the key light or behind the photographer.

Fill lighting helps to reduce tonal contrast and lighten the mood in an image.

Understanding lighting ratio

Lighting ratio is the relationship between the key light and the fill light. In other words, how they work together to create a dark and moody photo or a light and airy photo, and everything else in between.

  • A high lighting ratio creates deep shadows and bright highlights for a high contrast and dramatic effect. The key light needs to be significantly brighter than the fill light.
  • A low lighting ratio results in less tonal contrast, because there’s a small difference in intensity between the key light and fill light. This creates more even lighting with minimal shadows.

Wrapping up broad lighting photography

Choosing the most flattering lighting for portraits is more than deciding on the type of lighting – natural light, continuous light or off-camera flash, soft or hard, bright or dim.

Portrait photography lighting is about:

  • Deciding what type of image you want to create. Is it more important to flatter a subject’s features or create something dramatic, or can you do both?
  • To flatter your subject, use the lighting pattern that’ll be most suitable for them. Facial features and whether they have a wide face or narrow face will determine the lighting pattern and if you need to use a short or broad light setup.

To achieve the best results with the broad lighting technique:

  • Choose the appropriate light modifier for hard or soft light
  • Use a fill light or a reflector to add light and reduce shadows
  • Adjust the height and position of the lights slightly to suit your subject’s face

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If you have any questions about broad lighting photography, let us know in the comments.

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