Short lighting and broad lighting for portrait photography

Short lighting and broad lighting are portrait lighting patterns that are as relevant for natural light photographers as for studio photographers and photographers who combine natural light with flash. Lighting patterns are not about the source of the light, but the direction of light and how you use it.

Lighting patterns are used in portrait photography to:

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

Faces come in all shapes and sizes and the trick to good portrait photography is knowing which lighting pattern is best for your subject and the purpose of the portrait.

Understand how different lighting patterns affect your subject to take your portrait photography to the next level.

Portrait Lighting patterns of broad lighting and short lighting
I set up studio lighting to camera left which has created a broad lit split lighting pattern on the mother’s face and a short lit loop lighting pattern on the baby’s face

What is a portrait lighting pattern?

Put simply, a portrait lighting pattern is created by the play of light and shadow across a person’s face with different types of lighting.

You have almost as much control over lighting patterns with natural light photography as you do with flash photography.

How do you change lighting patterns?

There are three ways to change portrait lighting patterns. You can change:

  • The height and/or direction of the light
  • The position of the subject
  • Your position in relation to the subject

With flash photography, you can move the light into the right position, or move your subject, or you can move and photograph the subject from a different position.

When photographing with natural light, you obviously can’t move the light, but your subject can move and so can you.


What is the most flattering lighting for portraits?

So, the most flattering lighting for portraits is not just a matter of deciding the type of lighting – natural or flash, soft or hard, bright or dim. It’s about:

  • first deciding what type of image you want to create,
  • then looking at your subject and deciding on the lighting pattern that will be most suitable for them

Types of portrait lighting patterns

I’ve written previously about the five main lighting patterns:

  • Flat lighting
  • Beauty lighting (also known as butterfly lighting)
  • Split lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Loop lighting

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

Today we’re going to look at short lighting and broad lighting, because four of the above five lighting patterns can be used as either:

  • Broad lighting or
  • Short lighting

The odd one out is flat lighting, because there are no shadows with flat lighting.

And that’s the first clue to the vital difference between short lighting and broad lighting. Which leads to the obvious question…

What’s the difference between short lighting and broad lighting?

It’s actually really simple. Both short lighting and broad lighting are classic portrait lighting patterns, but:

  • Short lighting is used when the subject is lit from the side of their face that is furthest from the camera, casting the side closest to camera into shadow. There’s a short area that is lit.
  • Broad lighting is the opposite of short lighting, so this is when the subject’s face is lit from the side that is closest to camera, so the shadow is on the side furthest from the camera. There’s a broad area that is lit.

Generally speaking, short lighting is much more commonly used in portrait photography as it’s the most flattering portrait lighting pattern for most people. The key word there is most. It’s not always the best lighting pattern to use.

So let’s have a look at exactly what is short lighting and broad lighting so that you know when to use each lighting pattern.

PS – Fill in the form further up and we’ll send you this handy portrait lighting cheat sheet to print out and keep in your camera bag.

broad lighting vs short lighting in portrait photography

An overhead view of broad lighting and short lighting. Note that that with broad lighting a broad area of the face is light. With Short lighting a short area of the face is lit. Makes sense now?

Short lighting

As I mentioned, short lighting is when the face is lit from the furthest side from the camera, so the side closest to camera is in shadow.

  • Because of this short lighting is slimming, which is why it’s more commonly used than broad lighting
  • Short lighting makes faces seem longer, so is ideal for anyone with a round, wide or heavier set face
  • Shadows are great for moody photos

I mainly photograph women, so most of the time I use a short lighting pattern, because it’s slimming.

Texture can more pronounced with short lighting, because light skims across the side of the face. So, when placing your light or moving your subject, you need to pay attention to:

  • Imperfections in the skin, such as acne
  • Wrinkles – lines will be more obvious

Small adjustments in position of either the light or your subject can overcome both challenges.

Using natural light for broad lighting and short lighting patterns

In these two photos the setting sun was the only source of light. Obviously, the sun couldn’t be moved, so the lighting pattern was changed by the model moving. On the left her face is turned away from the sun and her cheek closest to camera is lit in a broad light pattern. On the right she turned her head towards the sun, causing her cheek closest to camera to be in shadow, creating short lighting with a butterfly lighting pattern. This defines and slims her face in comparison to the image on the right.

Broad lighting

With broad lighting the light is on the side of the face closest to camera, so shadows fall on the opposite side of the face.

  • Because there are no shadows on the camera side of the face, it will appear fuller
  • Broad lighting is ideal for very narrow faces
  • Fewer shadows in a photo leads to a lighter mood than with short lighting
  • If someone has a side they’d like deemphasized for whatever reason (scars, eyes of different sizes, receding hair on one side etc), broad lighting is ideal as you can position them so that the side of their face that they feel conscious about is in shadow, furthest from camera

I like using broad lighting for babies and little children, because it accentuates their chubby cheeks.

Types of lighting in photography

Another example of how to create portrait lighting patterns with natural light. Below you can see a pull back shot of the location. The model is lit mainly from light flooding in at the spectator stand opening on camera left. As a result, her cheek closest to camera is in shadow, so this is an example of short lighting with the loop lighting pattern.

How to manipulate natural light for portraits

Short lighting and broad lighting in the same photo

When photographing more than one person, you need to think through the best lighting pattern to use and how you need to pose your subjects so that all look good.

With the light coming from one side if they’re facing:

  • the same way, the lighting pattern will be the same for both – either both short lit or both broad lit
  • towards each other, or in opposite directions, one will be short lit and one will be broad lit

As with the mother and baby photo as the top of the page, sometimes, you have to decide who is the main subject of the photo and prioritize them.

Taking lighting patterns a step further

What makes lighting infinitely fascinating, apart from adapting different lighting patterns to create mood and flatter people, is controlling the shadows. So, not only are there a huge number of ways to light a person, or an object, but by controlling the shadow you can entirely change the mood of an image.

Consider light and airy vs dark and moody…and everything in between.

Further reading:
What is high key photography, and how to master it
How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

Filling in the shadows

Controlling shadows is done with fill lighting. And, as with portrait lighting patterns, fill lighting is not just for studio photographers.

  • Natural light photographers can use reflectors to control the shadows
  • Flash photographers can use reflectors or additional lighting to lift the shadows
  • Photographers who combine ambient light with flash have the most control over shadows by using reflectors, additional lighting and natural light as fill light

As photography is all about light, learning how to manipulate light to create mood, bring out character and flatter your subjects, is key to great portrait photography.

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If you have any questions about when to use short lighting or broad lighting, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand how to manipulate light for flattering portraits, share that too.

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