Traditional Lighting Patterns

 Traditional Lighting Patterns

These are the traditional lighting set-ups that studio photographers used to be taught as standard. The set-ups create different ‘light patterns’ on your subject’s face, helping you to flatter their face shape.

Worth knowing

It’s worth learning these traditional lighting patterns for several reasons. Firstly, they are a good starting point when you’re new to studio lighting and trying to figure out where to put your lights. Secondly, being able to identify a lighting pattern teaches you to look for highlights and shadows on a person’s face, which is an essential skill to mastering portraiture. Lastly, they are tried and tested. They work, and even if you want to ‘break the rules’ by lighting your subject completely differently, you do need to know the rules in the first place so you can break them with intention.

Butterfly lighting

Butterfly lighting is particularly flattering for older subjects, as it minimises wrinkles. It’s also effective for people with high, strong cheekbones, as these will be emphasised. It’s name relates to the shape of the shadow under the subject’s nose, which is said to resemble a butterfly.

To achieve this lighting pattern, place your main flash above and in front of your subject, with the light angled down towards them. If you have a second flash, turn it to a lower power setting and place it below and in front of your subject to soften shadows. Alternatively, use a reflector to bounce light back up on your subject’s face.


Loop lighting

This lighting pattern is named after the ‘loop’-shaped shadow that appears to the side and base of the subject’s nose. It’s particularly flattering for people with rounder faces, as the near side of the face is shadowed slightly, making it appear smaller and less prominent.

To achieve loop lighting, set your main flash so that it’s above your subject’s eye level and about 45 degrees to one side. Turn your subject’s face slightly towards the light to create flattering ‘narrow lighting’ with the nearside of the face in shadow.


Rembrandt lighting

This lighting pattern is named after the painter, who often lit the subjects of his paintings in this style. It occurs when one side of your subject’s face is in shadow, apart from a triangular patch of light on that cheek. Both eyes should have catchlights in them, although this is sometimes hard to achieve when subjects have a prominent nose ridge. It’s a dramatic style of lighting that’s often used in masculine or hero portraiture.

To achieve Rembrandt lighting, start with your main flash in the position for loop lighting. Then move it further around your subject until the shadow from his or her nose joins with the shadow on their cheek, leaving just a triangle of light (and catchlight) showing.


Profile lighting

If you’re working with a subject who has a beautiful profile (i.e. they look great side-on), then this is the lighting pattern to use. Turn your subject so their nose is 90 degrees from the camera, then position your main flash at about 110 degrees from the camera. As with all the lighting patterns, your main light should be above your subject’s eye level. Lighting anyone from below is unflattering and effective only for bad guys in horror films.

Optionally, to soften shadows, you can add a second light on a lower power setting at about 30 degrees from the camera’s position, or use a reflector.


Split lighting

In split lighting, a subject looking directly towards the camera will have half of their face in shadow while the other half is lit.

It’s a dramatic, moody and masculine lighting pattern that tends to be used for male portraits as it’s not particularly flattering.

To create split lighting, place your main flash at 90 degrees to your subject. Inch the light backwards if any is falling on the far cheek, and forwards to get a tiny catchlight in the shadowed eye, if you can. Again, if your subject has a prominent nose ridge, this can block light reaching the eye furthest from the light.