6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know

In classical portraiture there are several things you need to control and think about to make a flattering portrait of your subjects, including: lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view. I suggest you get to know these basics inside out, and as with most things, then you can break the rules. But if you can nail this one thing you’ll be well on your way to great people photos. In this article we’re going to look at lighting pattern: what is it, why it’s important, and how to use it. Perhaps in another future article, if you enjoy this one, I’ll talk about the other aspects of good portraiture.

Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly lighting

There are also Broad and Short lighting which are more of a style, and can be used with most of the patterns above. Let’s look at each of them individually.

1. Split Lighting

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Split lighting is exactly as the name implies – it splits the face exactly into equal halves with one side being in the light, and the other in shadow. It is often used to create dramatic images for things such as a portrait of a musician or an artist. Split lighting tends to be a more masculine pattern and as such is usually more appropriate or applicable on men than it is for women. Keep in mind however, there are no hard and fast rules, so I suggest you use the information I provide here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the guideline whenever you’re not sure.

To achieve split lighting simply put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind their head. Where you place the light in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In true split lighting, the eye on the shadow side of the face does pick up light in the eye only. If by rotating their face a bit more light falls on their cheek, it’s possible their face just isn’t ideal for split lighting.

NOTE: any lighting pattern can be created on any facial view (frontal view showing both ears, or ¾ face, or even profile). Just keep in mind that your light source must follow the face to maintain the lighting pattern. If they turn their head the pattern will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the patten just by them rotating their head a little.

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