8 Portrait Lighting Setups Every Photographer Should Know

by | Oct 5, 2021 | Portrait Photography

To create a great portrait, you need to understand lighting. This set of slides introduces the basics of studio lighting. The most important factors are the ratios, patterns, angles of view, and facial positions. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment with light and shadow when shooting portraits. Start with these 8 lighting positions, from a basic setup to a more dramatic look.

These positions are designed to teach beginners the basics of photography lighting. They are also good for advanced photographers to remember or brush up on their skills. All of these positions use one light to illuminate the subject, but sometimes photographers will use a reflector.

Portrait Lighting Setup 1: Butterfly Lighting

When shooting portraits, photographers use a technique called butterfly lighting. This was named after the butterfly-shaped shadow that’s created under the subject as the main light shines down from above. Point the light directly at the camera and back, slightly off to the subject’s side.

Butterfly lighting is an excellent technique for catching shadows, especially under the chin or cheekbones. The higher your angle, the more shadows you’ll see under the cheeks. It’s best for most faces.

Portrait Lighting Setup 2: Loop Lighting

One way to create loop lighting in your photos is by simply angling your light 45º off-axis. This will help to shift the nose shadow to one side of the face. Instead of a butterfly-ish shadow, you’ll end up with a small loop. 

The way the light plays with the human face can be surprisingly beautiful. Loop lighting is flattering on most people and is often used for headshots. One way it affects the face is by creating a shadow on the other side of the face. The size of this shadow depends on the position of the light, as well as how much of that side of the nose is being blocked by it.

Portrait Lighting Setup 3: Rembrandt Lighting

The third type of lighting is named after a Dutch painter, Rembrandt. In this style, the nose shadows create a long loop that connects with the cheekbone on the other side. This traps light on the cheek, which makes it seem brighter than the rest of the face.

When you’re lighting for a grumpy, jumpy artist, create loop lighting. Afterward, use light coming from the side to make the nose shadow and cheek shadows touch. This is a very soft style of photography that was all about the softer lines.

Portrait Lighting Setup 4: Split (or Side) Lighting

Split lighting is a type of lighting where one side of a subject’s face is illuminated, while the other half is left in darkness. It creates a theatrical and cinematic feel, and it isn’t as common as other positions.

With your subject at a 90º angle to the main light, you can place it nearly in the dark or use bouncing light to enhance its features.

If you want to catch the light, use filling. It might not be visible to the camera on the other side of the face, but it will be visible to the subject. Remember that this type of lighting will highlight texture in their face. Split lighting is perfect for moody portraits and is stylish but not always flattering.

Portrait Lighting Setup 5: Profile/Rim Lighting

Profile lighting can be used in sports portraiture because it conveys a heroic look.

There are a few ways to use a backlight. One way is to place it behind your subject, which will create a silhouette of them. This method requires more than one light if you just want a silhouette.

To light your subject’s profile, find the light source and angle them accordingly. If you’re taking profile photos, you want to position the light source in front of the subject (or slightly behind the other side).

Portrait Lighting Setup 6: Broad Lighting

Combining lighting patterns can help solve specific problems. Positioning the subject so that the light source is closest to the camera may help you achieve the best result. This also means your subject should be sitting at an angle from you. For subjects who wear glasses, this is the best way to avoid glare and keep their glasses out of the photo. Broad light is often used for school portraits and corporate headshots because of this. However, it may make a person’s face look wider than usual.

Portrait Lighting Setup 7: Short Lighting

Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. In short lighting, the subject is on the far side of the face and the light is on the near side. When compared to broad lighting, short lighting is less flattering and more unflattering. Short lighting is good at defining the face depending on which angle you use. It can be hard to avoid glare from glasses. Short lighting can make the face seem more “thin” – which is both good and bad depending on what look you’re going for.

Portrait Lighting Setup 8: Fill Lighting

How do you decide if you need a fill light? One option is to bounce the key light off a reflector. The second option is to add a separate light, but many times I find myself repeating the same light source and it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’ll use this time to catch my breath, and other times I’ll simply choose not to use a fill light. To use fill lighting effectively, you should understand the basics of ratios. This can be difficult for beginners who are not familiar with technical terminology. 

I’m going to show you how to make dynamic portraits with lots of contrast and depth. To do this, set your key light to one level of brightness and your fill light to another level of brightness. You can measure these levels by comparison:

  • A light meter reading of f/8 on the subject and f/5.6 on the fill can indicate a key is twice as bright as the fill. A difference in exposure of one-stop is double the amount of light that another stop is.
  • You can get a good idea of the ratios of your lights by using your sense of sight. If your flash or strobe is at ¼ power and your fill flash or strobe is at ½ power, then you’ll have a 2:1 ratio in total.

If your key light and fill light are at the same power level, your portrait will be flat and evenly lit. Then again, sometimes you want that. Much of the time, though, you need some contrast to add dimension to your image. The quickest way to do so is with your key light and fill light in the starring roles.

Patience and Practice for Lighting Portraits

Practice makes perfect when it comes to portrait photography lighting. Take the time to experiment with different settings until you hit the perfect combination. Adjust only one setting at a time so that you don’t confuse yourself in the process. To make sure the light is hitting your subject at the right angle, you need to change the position of the light and model at the same time. Keep this in mind as you adjust your setup. The more you experiment with these different lighting patterns, the better you’ll be able to create unique portraits of your subjects.