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In portrait photography, you need to master a few standard lighting patterns to create different moods and flatter different face shapes. The art of portrait lighting is like sculpting with light. Loop lighting is one of these methods.

Other portrait lighting patterns include:

  • Split lighting
  • Rembrandt Lighting
  • Butterfly lighting
  • Flat lighting

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

What is loop lighting?

Loop lighting is one of the most commonly used lighting styles for portrait photography. Like with all portrait lighting patterns, you can use loop lighting with either natural light or flash.

The aim of loop lighting is to position the light (if using flash) or position the model (if using natural light) at an angle to the light source that creates a shadow leading down from the nose towards the cheek.

But don’t let the nose shadow join up with other shadow on the cheek. If it does join up, the loop portrait lighting pattern becomes Rembrandt lighting.

Further reading: Rembrandt lighting – what is it and how is it set up?

Loop lighting with indirect natural light

The soft shadows on her face are caused by indirect natural light as we were in the shade of a covered walkway.

Why is it called loop lighting?

The name simply refers to the loop shape of the shadow that’s created with loop lighting. Nothing more complicated than that.

Why use loop lighting?

The loop lighting pattern is subtle, with just a hint of shadow cast across the face. It creates a nice bright look, because there are few shadows, but enough to create more definition in the face than flat lighting.

Loop lighting ideally suited to a light and airy style shoot. However it also works well with a dark and moody style image, although not as moody and atmospheric as the more dramatic Rembrandt and split lighting patterns.

Because of its versatility, headshot photographers use loop lighting frequently.

What kind of face suits loop lighting?

Portrait lighting patterns add definition to faces, because of the shadows that are formed, which is why it’s like sculpting with light. Portrait photographers choose different lighting patterns to suit different faces and create different moods.

Loop lighting suits most people and works ideally with oval-shaped faces. The downward sloping shadow created by loop lighting, appears to lengthen the face, so it’s also flattering for round or square faces. In a subtle way it also defines the cheekbones, making them seem slightly higher.

Portrait Lighting patterns using natural light

Hard shadows on their faces caused by direct light. Shot during the golden hour.

How do you get a loop light pattern using flash?

To achieve a loop lighting pattern you need to create a small shadow of the subject’s nose on your subject’s cheek. When placing your lighting, you must consider:

  1. Where to place the light
  2. Height of the light
  3. Angle of the light

Let’s take a deeper look…

1. Where to place the light

The position of the light in relation to the subject is between 30 and 45 degrees. So, if you imagine a clock, with the subject in the middle, the background at 12 and the camera at 6:

  • the light should be coming from between 4 and 5 for a shadow on the left side of the face
  • or from between 7 and 8 for a shadow on the right side of your subject’s face

If you want a shadow on the left side of the noise, the light must be on the right of the subject. So the shadow is on the opposite side of the face from the light.

2. Height of the light

As a rule of thumb, start with the light about a foot higher than your subject’s head. This will give you the 45 degree angle down. You might need to go higher, depending on your subject’s face.

3. Angle of the light

To get this shadow, your light source must be above your subject’s eye level and angled down at about 45 degrees.

The exact angle will vary from face to face, so you’ll need to assess the angle for each person to make sure that the shadow is the right size and is falling in the right place.

How to use loop lighting with natural light

Both of these were shot with natural light only. On the left her face is too turned to camera, so this is closer to a Rembrandt style lighting pattern than loop lighting. With the photo on the left the sun was just about to drop below the horizon, so it was too low. The nose shadow is going upwards across the cheek from her nose instead of downwards.

How do you get loop light with natural light?

You can use either a flash or natural light to create loop lighting. The only difference is that, if you’re using natural light, you’ll have to move the subject into the right position. With flash you simply move the light around.

If you’re depending on the sun to light your subject directly, then you need to be aware of where the sun is in the sky. So time of day is important when planning a natural light shoot. Naturally, sunrise, sunset and midday are not going to work, because at:

  • sunrise and sunset – the sun can be too low in the sky
  • midday – the sun is too high

Also, with direct light, the shadows on your subject’s face will be hard.

However, if you’re in shade or indoors, using indirect light to light your subject, the shadows will be soft. If you’re indoors, you’ll also need to pay attention to where the light is coming from. In this instance you need to treat the light source as you would a studio light.

In other words, the height of a window will affect the shadow cast on your subject.

How the model's head position changes the lighting pattern

How you pose your model will change the lighting pattern – with both natural light and flash. These are lit by natural light in the golden hour. The only change between shots was the model’s head position. On the left, with her head turned and tilted towards camera, you can see the shadow of the loop lighting pattern across her cheek. On the right, by tilting her head away from the camera the lighting pattern changed. 

Controlling the shadows in a loop lighting setup

If you don’t want dark shadows, you’ll need to add fill light to soften the shadows. This applies to both flash photography and natural light photography.

To fill the shadows you can use:

  • A second light
  • Or a reflector

Alternatively, you could diffuse the light by blocking it from hitting your subject directly with a diffuser, or thin material. If photographing indoors net curtains work well to diffuse indirect light further for very soft shadows.

Further reading:
Using fill light – essentials you need to know
How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Summary of how to create loop lighting in portraits

1. Place the light slightly to the side of the subject

2. Set the light at least a foot (1 ruler length) higher than your subject

3. Angle the light down at 45 degrees

4. Adjust all positions to suit your subject’s features

5. Control the shadows

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about how to use loop lighting in portrait photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our loop lighting tips have helped you to understand how to create a loop lighting pattern share that too.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Essential loop lighting tips for portrait photography
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