Short lighting photography (essential portrait techniques)

Short lighting photography is a portrait lighting style for natural light photographers, studio photographers and photographers who combine natural light with flash. Lighting patterns aren’t about the source of the light, but the direction of light and how you use it.

Lighting isn’t just about illuminating a subject, it’s an essential portrait photography skill that also:

  • Creates mood
  • Flatters your subject
  • Brings out your subject’s character

As faces come in all shapes and sizes, the trick to good portrait photography is knowing which portrait lighting setup is best for your subject and the purpose of the portrait.

Definition of Short Lighting Photography

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

Short lighting, like broad lighting, can be used to modify portrait lighting patterns to flatter the subject and to create depth and drama. However, short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting, which illuminates the side of the face closest to the camera.

Female portrait outside using shortlighting

I used a studio strobe outdoors with a beauty dish (to camera left) to create soft light for this short lighting setup with a beauty lighting pattern and photographed from the shadow side of the model’s face

Benefits of short lighting in portrait photography

A short lighting pattern can create a dramatic and flattering look with shadows that sculpt the subject’s face.  Benefits of short lighting photography include:

1. Accentuate facial features

Short lighting photography can help accentuate the subject’s cheekbones, jawline, and other facial features by highlighting the shadow side of the face.

2. Create depth

Unlike with flat lighting, short lighting adds form to portrait subjects by casting light on the far side of the face, with shadows on the near side. So you add depth and dimension, helping to highlight features and make the image more three dimensional.

3. Add drama to portraits

This style of lighting lends itself to dramatic photos, because of the potential high tonal contrast between light and shadow on the subject’s face. Shadows create atmosphere and dark shadows are more dramatic.

4. Short lighting slims faces

Short lighting is flattering for a subject with a heavyset, wide or round face, because with the shadow side of the subject to camera appears slimmer. It can slim jawlines and highlight cheekbones. Short lighting is also sometimes called narrow lighting (which probably makes more sense).

That doesn’t mean that the purpose of every short-lit portrait is to slim a wide face, because it’s also used for dramatic effect, even with narrow faces. The photo above is a great example of using short lighting with narrow faces to add drama.

The shadow placement, such as nose shadow, depends on the lighting pattern used. More on this in a moment.

Natural light female biker portrait shortlit with split lighting

I used natural light from the rising sun to short light this portrait. As the mountain blocked the direct rays of the sun, the light is soft, so the shadows on her face are also soft. It’s a split lighting pattern and and I photographed from the shadow side, making it an example of short lighting

How to use short lighting photography

Short 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 are by changing:

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.

The rule of thumb with portrait lighting is when lighting 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.

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. This is how you can completely change a lighting setup from short lighting to broad lighting simply by photographing from the opposite side of the subject.

Portrait lighting patterns for short 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.

You can use any of these four portrait lighting patterns with short lighting setups. I’ve listed them in clockwise order from placing lights to the side of the subject, around to lighting from the front of the subject.

1. Split lighting with a short lighting setup

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

For short lighting split light, position yourself on the shadow the side of the subject. The side opposite the light.

Short lighting setup with Rembrandt lighting pattern

I created the dramatic shadows with a studio strobe fitted with a beauty dish for this example of Rembrandt lighting with a short light setup. I balanced flash with daylight ambient light for the high light ratio.

2. Rembrandt lighting with a short lighting setup

Rembrandt lighting is also side lighting, however the light source is positioned 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, creating a triangle of light below the eye on the shadow side.

For short lighting Rembrandt light, photograph from the shadow side of the subject.

3. Loop lighting with a short lighting setup

Loop lighting, while still being side lighting, brings the light even further to the front of the subject, still positioned higher up pointing down. As the subject’s nose doesn’t block as much light falling on their face, the nose shadow is smaller and doesn’t extend as far onto the cheek. This allows more light onto the dark side of the subject’s face and the nose shadow doesn’t join with the shadow of the cheek, making it less dramatic than Rembrandt lighting.

For short lighting loop light, photograph from the shadow side of the subject.

4. Butterfly lighting with a short lighting setup

Butterfly lighting is a classic lighting pattern where the light source is positioned directly above and in front of the subject’s face.

For short lighting with butterfly light, move to the side of the subject to photograph while they look off camera to the light. You can choose either side as both cheeks will be in shadow when viewed from the side.

Short lighting techniques for natural light

Natural light can be unpredictable, but can also create beautiful portraits. Natural light techniques for short lighting include:

  • Photographing in open shade for soft light vs hard light of direct sunlight
  • Choosing the right time of day, because of the angle of the sun in the sky
  • White balance settings, depending on whether you’re in shade, direct sunlight or have overcast conditions

Using Window Light

For short lighting with natural light indoors, window light works really well, because it channels the light. Here’s how:

  • Position your subject next to the window to create a shadow on the side of their face furthest from the window and then make small adjustments to their position to achieve the lighting pattern you want
  • Use a reflector to bounce light back into the shadowed side of the face to reduce the shadows
  • For soft light use a window that has no direct light shining in
  • Soften hard light with a layer of diffusion by hanging a sheer curtain or white sheet over the window

Direct sunlight portrait shortlit with loop lighting pattern

The angle of the afternoon sun helped to create the loop lighting pattern with hard light. It’s an example of short lighting as I photographed from the shadow side of the model’s face

Using Direct Sunlight

Use direct sunlight for short lighting portraits, indoors or outdoors. Here’s how:

  • Position your subject in relation to the sun for the lighting pattern you want
  • Use a reflector to bounce light back into the shadow side of your subject face to reduce shadows
  • If the light is too harsh, use a diffuser to soften it

Short lighting strobe techniques

The advantage of artificial light is that you can position lighting where you need for the look you want to create. Artificial lighting includes studio lights, speedlights, LED continuous lighting or even household lamps.

With off camera flash you can:

  • Adjust power settings to control intensity of the light
  • Add additional lighting to control the shadows
  • Manipulate the color of flash light with gels for creative effects or to balance the flash with ambient light

While flash lighting puts the photographer in control of the light, it’s more difficult to learn than natural light photography. But it’s worth it!

Creating dramatic portraits

Modify artificial lighting for the look you want with the right light modifier for the level of drama you want to capture. Some options are:

  • A large softbox, reflective umbrella, or scrim will diffuse light for a softer, lighter mood
  • Use studio strobes bare bulb or with a metal reflector fitted to the front the light for a hard, bright light source that adds drama and mood
  • Control light spill with a grid or barn doors

Male portrait with two light setup shortlight beauty lighting

In this two light studio setup I placed the key light in the butterfly lighting position (in relation to the model) and then placed an accent light opposite and behind the model. I photographed from the shadow side of his face to add to the drama and shadows in the image

Using one or more light sources

A basic short lighting setup needs only a single light source for any of the portrait lighting patterns already discussed. However, if you want to soften the shadows, you can add a second light source for fill light.

You could also add accent lights, like a hair light, rim light or backlight for added drama in photos.

Essential elements of portrait lighting

For better shortlit portraits and ultimate control over the final image, learn how key light, fill light, and lighting ratios work together to create mood.

1. Key light

The primary light source in photography lighting is called the key light or main light and, in portrait photography, it illuminates the subject’s face. So the key light is the most important light in any portrait lighting setup and it sets the tone for the entire image.

2. Fill light

A fill light is used to fill in the shadows created by the main light source. You can place on the opposite side of the key light or behind the photographer to create even lighting. So fill lighting helps to reduce tonal contrast and drama in an image.

3. Lighting ratios for portraits

Lighting ratio refers to the relationship between the key light and the fill light.

Light quality for portraits

Light quality refers to the difference between hard lighting and soft lighting, and can be changed by moving the light closer or further away from the subject. When it’s further away the light is harder, and moving it closer softens light. These opposing light qualities impact the mood of a photo differently.

Hard Lighting

Hard lighting is used more in fashion photography than portrait photography. It’s strong, directional light that creates dark, defined shadows for dramatic and edgy portraits.

Hard light is unforgiving and highlights every skin imperfection. So you need to consider why you want to use it and if it suits your subject’s skin for the look you want to create.

Create hard light with a small, concentrated light source, such as a spotlight, bare bulb flash, or direct sunlight.

Soft Lighting

Soft lighting, on the other hand, is even light with soft, gentle shadows. It’s more forgiving and helps to minimize skin imperfections, so is great for flattering, natural-looking portraits.

Create soft light with a large, diffused light source, such as a softbox or a large white reflective umbrella.

Wrapping up short 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 lighting is about:

  • First deciding what type of image you want to create – What is the purpose of the portrait? Is it to create a flattering image for your client? Or is your intention a creative portrait with drama and mood?
  • Then looking at your subject and choosing the lighting pattern that’ll be most suitable for them –  Does your subject have a wider face that would benefit from a little sculpting with light? Or a narrow face that could benefit from being filled out slightly?

To achieve the best results with the short 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
  • All faces are different, so adjust the height and position of the lights slightly to tweak the shadows on your subject’s face

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