What is split lighting in portrait photography – how to use it and why

Split lighting in photography is great for creating quick and easy dramatic portraits. In fact, it’s the most dramatic portrait lighting technique.

What is split lighting?

Split lighting isn’t the type of light you use – you can do it just as easily with natural light, constant light or strobes. And it has nothing to do with the type of light modifier you put on your flash either.

Split lighting is a photography lighting technique that lights the subject from the side to achieve a dramatic look for portraits where half of the subject’s face is lit and the other half is in shadow. You can see how split lighting got its name – the face is split into light and dark halves down the center of the subject’s nose.

So it’s a portrait lighting pattern and has nothing to do with technology.

split lighting with natural light
Split lighting technique showing half of the face in shadow from the middle of the subject’s nose

What’s the purpose of split lighting?

A split light pattern is perfect for dramatic, dark and moody portraits. Because you can see only half the face, it creates a sense of mystery, of something hidden and can even feel a little intimidating.

No wonder the split lighting effect is used so much in the Batman movies!

Although this type of lighting is great for portraying villains, that’s definitely not the only time to use it.

Split lighting can make very compelling headshots that emit power and confidence. But there’s a time and place for different lighting setups and it all depends on who and what the headshots are for. If my dentist’s headshot was lit with split lighting I’d run a mile in the opposite direction! It would be totally the wrong vibe.

With that said, there are no hard and fast rules in portrait photography.

Dramatic black and white split lighting
I used a one light setup to create split lighting with deep shadows for a dramatic maternity photo that emphasized her shape

While split lighting is used mainly for photographing men, I actually use it quite often for both maternity photography and boudoir photography. The deep shadows add drama and shape the body beautifully. Shadows also add a little mystery to the female form (in a nice way, not a villainous way).

How split lighting affects the face

As with all portrait lighting techniques split lighting suits certain types of faces. The advantage of this lighting style is that it:

  • Makes a face and nose appear narrower
  • Can be used to hide part of the face

How do you set up a split light?

Split lighting is one of the easiest lighting setups for portrait photographers to achieve and you just need one light source, which can be an natural light source or an artificial light source, such as:

  • A window light
  • Direct sunlight
  • Off camera flash
Portrait lighting techniques with natural light
I shot these hard light images with natural light from the setting sun and no fill light or diffusion. Only the model’s head position changed, which changed the lighting pattern from (in order from left to right) split lighting, Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting.

Steps for basic split lighting setup

I think it’s fair to say that a split light setup is the ultimate side light direction for dramatic effect and it’s also a really easy lighting pattern to set up.


Step 1 – position light from the side

Place your light directly to the side of your subject (if using artificial light), or your subject directly to the side of the light (if using natural light) at a 90-degree angle.

So if you think of your subject as the center of a clock face and you’re at 6 o’clock, start by placing the light at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock.


All faces are different so, when split lighting portraits, you may need to adjust the position of the light slightly to suit your subject by bringing your light slightly forward. In other words, using the clock face as a guide, the light might be better at 2.15 or 8.45 in relation to your subject.

The light could even be positioned slightly back from the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. Just keep an eye on where the shadows are falling and adjust accordingly.

Remember that the shadow line should run down the center of the nose.

split lighting vs Rembrandt lighting
Two light set up with studio strobes with the second light as a hair light. The light position was the same for both shots, only the model changed direction, which changed the lighting pattern to Rembrandt lighting in the second image. The image on the left is a split lighting setup with the main light source on camera left and the rim light behind the model to camera right. 

If you bring the lights too far forward you’ll move from split light into Rembrandt lighting, the most used lighting pattern for dramatic light. You’ll know, because you’ll start to see a triangle of light forming under the eye in the shadow side of the face. 

If this happens, just move the light back towards 3 or 9 o’clock.

Step 2 – adjust lighting height

The light should be slightly higher than your subject’s eye level. Be careful that it’s not lighting them from below as it’ll look weird and create unflattering shadows – known jokingly as “monster lighting”. Just place a torch beneath your chin and shine it upwards to see what I mean – great for telling ghost stories!

Next level split lighting setup

While it’s very easy to achieve a simple split lighting effect, refining the lighting setup will take your portraits to the level of professional photographers. So once you’ve mastered the basic set up, here’s how to to control the light and shadow.

Split light with fill
I lit this with indirect natural light from a large window with sheers for extra diffusion to camera left. Light reflected off the white walls filled in the shadow side of her face, so the shadow is barely noticeable with this soft lighting.

1. Fill for split lighting

Using a strong light source as the key light without fill light will produce deep shadows and high contrast, which is very dramatic. However, if deep shadows aren’t the look you’re going for, but you still want the impact of split light, try filling in the shadows by:

  • Positioning a reflector on the shadowed side of the face to bounce light back into their face
  • Or add a second light at lower power on the shadow side to fill in the shadows

Top tip – be careful not to lighten the shadow too much as you’ll lose the drama created by shadows and could even end up with a flat light effect.

2. Catchlights and split lighting

Bringing the light slightly forward allows you to capture catchlights in your subject’s eyes, which is recommended in portrait photography.

However, if your intention is a dark, villainous look, you may not want catchlights. For all other portraits catchlights are essential for bringing life to your subject’s eyes.

Because split lighting casts such a deep shadow over half the face, especially without fill light, it’s really important to have a catchlight in the eye on the shadow side.

The difference it makes is huge.

3. Split light photographed from the side of the subject

We’ve only looked at standard split lighting where you photograph from the front of the subject. Now let’s think outside of the box and see how to use split lighting with broad lighting vs short lighting.

Split lighting setup with SHORT light

While still using a split lighting pattern, with short light you photograph from the shadow side of the subject, which is very slimming. So the light is on the far side of the face, the opposite side from the camera.

  • Subject in the center of the clock face facing 4 or 5 o’clock
  • Background – 12 o’clock
  • You – 6 o’clock
  • Main light source – between 3 and 4 o’clock position

Split lighting setup with BROAD light

While still using a split light pattern, to modify with broad light you photograph from the lit side of the subject, which widens faces. So the light is on the near side of the face, the same side as the camera.

  • Subject in the center of the clock face facing 4 or 5 o’clock
  • Background – 12 o’clock
  • You – 6 o’clock
  • Main light source – between 4 and 5 o’clock position

Split lighting mistakes to avoid

As with all portrait lighting in photography, split light comes with a few challenges…

1. Texture and split light

Light that skims across the surface of something will highlight texture in photos, so split lighting may not work with all subjects. If you want to hide lines and skin imperfections, this isn’t the portrait lighting technique to use.

The intent of the shot and your subject’s skin will determine whether a split light setup is suitable or not.

2. Hair getting in the way

Pay attention to your subject’s hair. If you don’t want hair to cast shadow, make sure that it’s well back from the face with this lighting pattern.

If your subject has a side parting, with hair falling on one side of the face, light from the other side. Unless you like the shadows caused by the hair.

Attention to detail in portrait photography makes all the difference.

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If you have any questions about split light in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand how to use this lighting pattern, share that too.

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