Essential Portrait Photography Lighting Patterns

Last Updated on May 8, 2021

portrait of young woman with black background

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when taking a portrait is the lighting. You can have the best camera and make up in the world, but you need to have your lighting optimized in order for your portraits to look the best.

That said, it’s not just about relying on natural light – you can use flash or reflectors to bounce light back at your subjects. There are different patterns of lighting that you should be aware of before starting – some are more flattering than others. Read on for the most essential portrait photography lighting patterns you need to start using today.

Best Lighting Patterns For Portraits

When discussing lighting patterns you must first understand the elements of a portrait that make it either a great photo or a dull one. Those portrait aspects are lighting pattern (which we will learn today), facial view, angle of view, and lighting ratio.

Lighting patterns are how shapes are created across the face based on the photographers manipulation of shadows and light. There are many ways to approach portrait lighting, such as a face lit from below or a face lit from both sides but all of them fall under the following lighting patterns.

The Portrait Lighting Patterns Are:

  1. Loop lighting
  2. Butterfly lighting
  3. Split lighting
  4. Rembrandt lighting

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is where you have a light source that is behind your subject, slightly higher than the subject, and to the side of the subject. Essentially what is happening is that the light source will be at a 45-degree angle above the eye closest to it.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting happens when there are two lights on each side of a face. One is above and one is below. It creates a butterfly-esque shadowing under the eyes on each side.

Split Lighting

Split lighting is where you have a light on the subject and directly behind them with a shadow that runs from ear to ear. This produces an interesting outline along each side of the face. Essentially a split light will be at an angle that is directly behind the subject and they will be in the middle of the two lights.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting happens when there is a light source behind you, but below pointing up towards your subject. This creates a shadow under the nose that can look very flattering. It’s like loop lighting, but reversed. Best used when there are more than 2 lights to make sure that there isn’t too much brightness from behind you and your subject.

There are then two ways that you can manipulate each of these primary lighting patterns to create different effects. Let’s look into each of them.

Broad Lighting

With broad lighting you will use the same principal as loop lighting, but the face is at a 90-degree angle to the camera, with the light source behind it. This is great for profiles and is usually where you want to use larger light sources like softboxes or reflectors.

Short Lighting

Short lighting happens when your subject is facing the camera and there is a light source above, at a 45-degree angle, on one side of their face. This will create a harsh angle on the side closest to the light and will create an uneven lighting on the face. It’s usually best to use this in portrait photography when you want to have contrast between eyes and lips. However, if there is a large light source above the subject you can have that come down so it’s about half way between their eyes and chin or even just above their hairline. This will help to balance out the lighting slightly as in any portrait shot.

How To Use Lighting Patterns

The task at hand is simple – when taking a portrait, you simply need to ask yourself, “What lighting pattern will work best for this subject?”

With that in mind you can then take a look at the list above and find the pattern that best suits your subject – often times just changing the angle of the light source will make it work. Here’s an easy way to think about it: if your subject has long hair or is wearing heavy clothing than use butterfly lighting. If they have rounder features (like a woman with a child), use split lighting. If they have more elongated features (an older woman) then try the loop lighting pattern.

Of course, it’s important to remember that if you’re just beginning portrait photography that you should just start getting to know each lighting pattern. The more you practice each pattern the better you will understand when to use each one. As with anything in photography, there are times when breaking the rules makes a more interesting photograph. And the only way to learn when to break the rules and when to follow them is through consistent practice.

Bottom Line

We’ve been conditioned to think of lighting patterns as a way to place the light and shadows on our subject in a specific way. But what are the elements that make up a great portrait? By knowing these lighting patterns you can start taking more interesting portraits from your everyday shots.

In using lighting you can make the most out of the resources that are available to you. And when it comes down to it, if you feel like something is missing in your photographs, all it takes is time and practice to get it right.