5 Portrait Lighting Patterns & How to Set Them Up

When it comes to portrait photography, you can’t just stick a light in someone’s face and expect to get a flattering image. Faces are made up of complex shapes and angles that require specific kinds of lighting. It takes a great understanding of light and the correct equipment to make great portraits.

One of the most basic elements of a good portrait is using directional lighting. Flat lighting, like the light produced by an on-camera flash, lights the whole face equally.  This direct light, perpendicular to the face, doesn’t create any shadows and makes the face look flat and uninteresting. In a portrait, shadows are just as important as the highlights.

A lighting pattern defines how the highlights and shadows play across a person’s face. In this article we will be covering the five classic lighting patterns and explain how they are set up. By the end of this article, you will have all the information needed to create stunning portraits of your own.

How to Use this Guide

All of the lighting patterns discussed below can be achieved with the use of a single key light or the sun. If you’re just starting out, keep things simple and don’t try setting up multiple lights. For those who are more experienced, I’ve included setup instructions for a fill light and hair light (if applicable). Once you have some practice using a single light setup, you can start adding light sources for more creative control.

In many of these setups, a background light can be used to illuminate the background (if you’re using one).

1: Paramount (Butterfly) Lighting


Paramount lighting is also referred to as butterfly lighting because of the butterfly shaped shadow that it casts below the subjects nose.  It is primarily used for portraits of women and glamour shots. It creates images that have an elegant and glamorous feel to them.

How to set up the shot: 

Key Light – The key light should be placed high, directly in front of the subject’s face. To produce the butterfly shaped shadow, the light must be close to the subject, but not so close that the light doesn’t illuminate the eyes. The camera should be below and directly in front of the key light.

Fill Light – To fill in the shadows on the neck, you can use a fill light or a reflector. A fill light should be placed directly under the key light, at the same height as the face. If you use a reflector, it should be placed directly under the subject’s face, angled down to bounce light up at the chin.

Hair Light – A hair light can be placed above and slightly behind the subject’s head. Make sure that it does not spill light onto the subject’s face.

paramount butterfly

2: Loop Lighting


Loop lighting can be recognized by the small loop shaped shadow on either side of the subject’s nose. This technique is the most popular of the five lighting patterns. It works well with faces of any shape. When you use loop lighting, make sure that the shadow cast by the nose and the shadow on the lower cheek don’t overlap.

How to set up the shot:

Key Light – The key light should be placed just above eye level and slightly to the side of the subject. Depending on the how far the subject is angled from the camera, the light should be at a 30-40o angle to the side of the camera.

Fill Light – The fill light should be placed on the opposite side of the key light as the camera, but at a closer angle. The fill light’s power level should be set 2-4 stops lower than the key light, making sure that the only shadows cast on the subject’s face are from the key light.

Hair Light – The hair light should be above and slightly behind the subject’s head just like in the paramount lighting setup.

loop lighting

3: Rembrandt Lighting


Named for the famous painter who commonly used this type of lighting pattern in his paintings, Rembrandt lighting is easily recognized by the small triangle shaped highlight it produces on the subject’s cheek. Rembrandt lighting gives a very moody or dramatic feel to the portrait. The triangle highlight on the cheek makes this type of lighting is great for subjects with prominent cheek bone structure.

How to set up the shot:

Key Light – The key light should be placed at a 45o angle to the side of the subject’s face, just above eye level. The lighting should produce shadows under the eyes and nose, resulting in a small upside down triangle shaped highlight on the less illuminated side of the face.

Fill Light – The fill light should be placed on the opposite side of the camera as the key light at about a 15-20o angle. Place the fill light lower than the key light, and set the power to about half. You may substitute the use of a fill light with a reflector placed at the same location.

Hair Light – The hair light should be placed in the same position above and behind the head as the other lighting patterns, but can be used at a higher power level to increase the highlights.

rembrandt lighting

4: Split Lighting


Split lighting, like the name implies, “splits” the face in half, lighting only one side. Many celebrity portraits are shot with split lighting. It’s ideal for men and can be used to make a wide face look more narrow. Split lighting tends to create a mysterious and moody portrait, which can be made even more dramatic by reducing or eliminating the fill light.

How to set up the shot:

Key Light – The key light should be placed at a 90o angle to the side of the subject at eye level. In some situations, the light can be placed at an even greater angle, slightly behind the subject. The actual position of the light will depend on how far the subject is angled away from the camera.

Fill Light – A fill light can be used on the opposite side of the camera at a much smaller angle than the key light to soften the effect of the hard shadows on the dark side of the face. To emphasize the shadows, you may also choose to do away with the fill light entirely.

Hair Light – An optional hair light can be placed above and slightly behind the subject, just like in any of the other portrait lighting patterns above.

split lighting

5: Rim (Profile) Lighting


In rim lighting, the subject is turned away from the camera 90o. The lighting highlights the subject’s outline and features, creating a very dramatic portrait..

How to set up the shot:

Key Light – The key light is placed behind the subject at an angle greater than 90o from the camera. The light from behind, creates a silhouette-like outline of the subject. The light should be placed at or near eye level and be pointed directly at the face.

Fill Light – The fill light should be placed in-between the key light and the camera to subtly light the dark side of the subject’s face. You may want to use a reflector on the opposite side of the subject to fill in some of the shadow.

Hair Light – A hair light is optional, but can help to highlight and separate the subject’s hair from a dark background.

profile rim

Conclusion


Once you become familiar with the different lighting patterns and what they look like, you’ll be able to point them out in photographs and paintings. It’s amazing what you don’t notice when you’re not looking.

Try experimenting with different light sources and compare the results. Pay strict attention to how different lights highlight the subject and how the texture of the skin looks under different light. Experiment with different light patterns and subjects with different facial structures to find out which ones work best with different people.

Feel free to share any questions or suggestions in the comments below, and share your work on the Photography Element Google+ page.

Special thanks to Kevin Kertz for generously letting me use his portrait lighting diagram. He’s also happens to be a phenomenal photographer. You can check out his work at KevinKertz.com.