Studio Lighting – Portraits

When taking a portrait in a studio there are different lighting techniques that create variety among this area. When taking a portrait it is important to take into account the following factors: lighting ratio, lighting patterns, angle and facial view.


Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Split lighting
  • Flat lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly lighting
  • Clam lighting


Split Lighting:


Split lighting is pretty self explanatory, as the name suggests there is a split in the lighting of the face. This means that half of the face is lit and half is in shadow, the dividing line should be down the center of the face splitting it exactly in half. This technique is used to create a dramatic image.



To achieve split lighting simply put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind their head. Where you place the light in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly.


Flat Lighting:


With portrait photography, flat lighting dulls or eliminates the intriguing features of your subjects that give them their character, expression, emotion. The set up creates a diffusion of light that removes many shadows by doing this the portrait appears as more flattering so this technique is often used for fashion or makeup adverts.


To achieve a truly flattering image using flat lighting it may be necessary to us reflectors to illuminate any areas in shadow.


Loop Lighting:


Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subjects noses on their cheeks. In loop lighting the shadow of the nose and that of the cheek do NOT touch. Keep the shadow small and slightly downward pointing, but be aware of having your light source too high which will create odd shadows and cause loss of the catch-lights. Loop light is probably the most common or popular lighting pattern as it is easy to create and flatters most people.


To create loop lighting, the light source must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera (depends on the person, you have to learn how to read people’s faces).

Rembrandt Lighting:


Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the painter often used this pattern of light in his paintings. Rembrandt lighting is identified by the triangle of light on the cheek. Unlike loop lighting where the shadow of the nose and cheek do not touch, in Rembrandt lighting they do meet which, creates that trapped little triangle of light in the middle.


To create proper Rembrandt lighting make sure the eye on the shadow side of the face has light in it and has a catch light, otherwise the eye will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle. To create Rembrandt lighting the subject must turn slightly away from the light. The light must be above the top of their head so that the shadow from their nose falls down towards the cheek. Not every person’s face is ideal for creating Rembrandt lighting. If they have high or prominent cheek bones it will probably work. If they have a small nose or flat bridge of the nose, it may be difficult to achieve.

Butterfly Lighting: 


Butterfly lighting is named for the butterfly shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. The photographer is basically shooting underneath the light source for this pattern. It is most often used for glamour style shots and to create shadows under the cheeks and chin. It is also flattering for older subjects as it emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.


Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above eye or head level of the subject (depends on the person). It is sometimes supplemented by placing a reflector directly under their chin, with the subject themselves even holding it if this is easier. This method is known as Clam Lighting. This pattern flatters subjects with defined or prominent cheek bones and a slim face.


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