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

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

What is split lighting?

Split lighting is not the type of light you use – you can do it just as easily with natural light, constant light and strobes. And it has nothing to do with the type of modifier you put on your flash.

Split lighting is a photography lighting technique involving the placement of the light in relation to the subject to achieve a particular look.

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

It’s a dramatic look that lights only half the face, causing the other half to be in shadow. You can see how split lighting got its name – the face is split into light and dark halves.

split lighting with natural light

What’s the purpose of split lighting?

Split lighting 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 it’s used so much in the Batman movies!

Although it’s 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. Of course, 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 one light 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. They also add a little mystery to the female form (in a nice way, not a villainous way).

Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

How split lighting affects the face

As with all portrait lighting techniques split lighting suits certain types of faces. The advantage of split lighting 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 patterns to achieve and you just need one light source, which can be anything, such as:

  • A window
  • Direct sunlight
  • Flash

Portrait lighting techniques with natural light

I shot these images with natural light from the setting sun and no fill. Only her head position changed, which changed the lighting pattern from (in order from left to right) split lighting, Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting.

Light from the side

I think it’s fair to say that split lighting is the ultimate side light.

Further reading: Direction of light – how to use side light

The light should be slightly higher than your subject’s eye level. Be careful that it’s not lighting them from below as this will look weird and create unflattering shadows – known jokingly as “monster lighting”.

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).

So If you think of your subject as the center of a clock face, start with the light at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock. You’re at 6 o’clock.


As all faces are different, and for different moods, you may need to adjust 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.

It might even be that the light is positioned slightly back from the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. Keep an eye on where the shadows are falling and adjust accordingly.

The shadow line should run down the center of the nose.

split lighting vs Rembrandt lighting

Photographed in the studio with flash. I kept the light position the same for both shots, only the model changed direction, which changed the lighting pattern.

Catchlights and split lighting

Bringing the light slightly forward will allow you to capture catchlights in your subject’s eyes.

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.

Further reading: Using catchlights in photography to easily create eyes that sparkle

Rembrandt light

Although Rembrandt lighting is the most popular lighting pattern for dramatic light, you need to be careful about how far forward you bring the light. Too far and you’ll move from split lighting into Rembrandt lighting.

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.

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

Split light with fill

I lit this with indirect natural light from a large window with sheers for extra diffusion to camera left. The white walls and material filled in the shadow side of her face, so the shadow is barely noticeable.

Fill for split lighting

If deep shadows aren’t the look you’re going for, but you still want the impact of split light, consider using a fill light. This can be done by:

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

Further reading: Using fill light in photography – essentials you need to know

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.

Further reading: Flat light photography – how, when and why use it

Texture and split light

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

The intent of the shot and your subject’s skin will determine whether it’s suitable or not.

Further reading: How texture in photography composition adds interest

Hair getting in the way

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

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 lighting, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand how to use split light, share that too.

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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