Using Studio Flash

Natural light is variable and impossible to control, whereas artificial light provides a consistent and adjustable light source. You don’t have to wait for the right time of day, or for the weather to clear, if you have studio flash or flash guns. Learning to use studio lighting is also great training for on location shooting – visualise where you would place the lights in a studio and find ways to replicate that with whatever light you have available to you.

It’s easy to get started, and basic studio kits are now readily available and affordable – you could get everything you need for under £500 with some careful shopping around. What’s more difficult is learning how to control and modify your light sources to create the kind of shots you envision; it can take years of practice to fully master. Don’t be put off though, as you can get professional quality shots fairly quickly.

Remember to follow the posing guidelines as well as these lighting guidelines for a flattering result.

Positioning the lights

There are several traditional ways of lighting a portrait. Not all of these lighting styles will be possible on all types of face, as different bone structures may block or allow too much light to reach the shadowed side of the face. However, it’s worth practising all of them until you are able to quickly and easily light a subject according to any of them, and then you can start to experiment and tweak them.

In general, portrait lighting is either broad or narrow. Broad lighting occurs when the nearest side of the face is brighter than the far side, which can make the face look wider and heavier. Narrow lighting is when the side of the subject’s face nearest the camera is more shadowed than the far side, making it look slimmer. Unless your subject has a very thin face, it’s likely that they will prefer portraits of themselves that feature narrow lighting.

There are five distinct traditional portrait lighting styles:

– Butterfly lighting:

Great for older subjects, as it disguises wrinkles better than the other lighting styles, and for subjects with high cheekbones, as these will be enhanced further. Position your main light directly in front of your subject, but behind and above your camera’s position, angled down towards your subject. Use a second light below the camera position to fill in shadows, or alternatively use a reflector (the subject can hold the reflector on their lap if you’re creating a close-up shot). The name for this style comes from the shape of the shadow that forms under the subject’s nose, and the gentle shadows on the subject’s cheeks.

– Loop lighting:

For this style, the nose throws gentle shadows to one side and its base, where it creates a ‘loop’ shape. The shadow of the nose shouldn’t touch that of the cheek, otherwise it becomes Rembrandt lighting. To achieve loop lighting, your main light should be slightly above the subject’s eye level and about 45 degrees to one side. It’s particularly flattering for people with rounder faces.

– Rembrandt lighting:

Named after the painter, because his portraits commonly utilised this lighting style. The main light needs to be further around the subject’s side than in loop lighting but not so far it becomes split lighting. There should be a patch of light hitting the far cheek, forming a triangle shape, and a catchlight in both eyes.

– Profile lighting:

With the subject’s nose 90 degrees from the camera, and the main light about 110 degrees from the camera position, this style is perfect for showing off a beautiful profile. You can add a fill light on the side of the subject nearest the camera; about 30 degrees from the subject’s line of sight is ideal.

– Split lighting:

Equal halves of the face are lit and shadowed respectively on a subject who is facing directly towards the camera.. This is a dramatic lighting style that tends to be used more on men than women, as it’s atmospheric and moody rather than flattering. To achieve it, position the main light at 90 degrees to your subject – the subject’s eye on the opposite side should just be picking up the light. If light is falling on the far cheek, try moving the light a little further back around the subject.

All of the above lighting styles can be achieved with a single light, but you can experiment with a reflector to lift the shadows or, if you have additional lights, you could use these as fill lights, to light the subject’s hair or on the background. The main light should always be set or positioned so that its light output is stronger than the fill light, otherwise there will be no shadows, causing your portrait to look flat. As a starting point, set the fill light to about half the strength of your main light.

When you’re comfortable with selecting a lighting style and adjusting it where necessary to flatter your subject, begin experimenting with shooting at the edge of the light source, rather than at its strongest point. At the edges, you’ll find the light has an indescribable quality that will take your portraits to the next level.

High and low key shots

Bright portraits with few or no shadows are classified as ‘high key’. Without the sense of depth that shadows provide, high key portrait lighting can appear a little flat. However it is the easiest type of lighting to work with when you have a group of people or fidgety kids, as changes in the position of the subjects relative to the light source don’t matter so much. If you use the above lighting styles on a bright or white background, and/or supplement the main light with strong fill-in lighting, the end result is likely to be a high key image.

Conversely, portraits with lots of dark tones and shadows are considered ‘low key’. They are more atmospheric and have a sense of depth and shape that can be missing from high key portraits. In the right place, shadows help to slim a subject, so it’s a good lighting choice if you want to flatter a subject. If you create portraits on a dark or black background, use only a single light and/or use a fill-in light at a very weak setting, the end result is likely to be a low key image.

A good, balanced set of portraits should have a mix of both of these lighting types.


The small white reflections of the light source in your subject’s eyes are called catchlights. Without them, eyes look dull and lifeless. Unless your light source is very high or low relative to your subject, or is a long way off, then catchlights will automatically appear in your portraits.

Start to consciously notice them, and aim to adjust your lights and your subject’s position so that the catchlights appear in the 10 or 2 o’clock position (apart from butterfly lighting, where the catchlight will be at the 12 o’clock position). If your lights are above your subject’s eye line and slightly to one side, then the catchlights should appear correctly.

If your subject is looking off-camera, check that the catchlight isn’t directly over their pupil, as this can make the eye look a little alien. Simply ask your subject to adjust their gaze downwards or slightly to one side to remedy this, or move your lights.