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How to Use Loop Lighting for Portraits (Lighting Patterns)

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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When it comes to portrait photography, techniques such as loop lighting can make all the difference to your results. After all, you need to portray your subject in the best possible light!
Achieving the right pattern of light and shadow on your sitter’s face is critical. In this article, we’ll share our experience of how to make loop lighting and some of the other portrait lighting techniques work for you.

Types of Portrait Lighting: Loop Lighting

Face lighting can be challenging. Once you understand how to achieve the type of lighting effect you’re looking for, your photos will improve.
Loop lighting is one of several face lighting techniques that you should be aware of:

  • Loop lighting – this is when you can see a small shadow of the sitter’s nose on their cheek. It requires the face to be lit from a specific angle. Loop lighting is one of the most popular styles of portrait lighting as it tends to flatter most faces.
  • Split lighting – with this you cast one side of the face in the light, the other side in shadow. It creates a dramatic lighting effect that is most often used for male portraits.
  • Butterfly lighting – if your main source of light comes from above, the shadow beneath the nose will appear like a butterfly.
  • Rembrandt lighting – named for the famous Dutch painter, the shadows of the nose and cheek collide. They leave a small area of bright light on the apple of the cheek. It can be dark and dramatic, but it’s not an easy technique to master.
  • Broad and short lighting – if your sitter’s face is at an angle, one side will be turned more towards the camera. When this side is in the light, it looks broader – and this is referred to as broad lighting. It will make your subject’s face look wider. Short lighting is when the side of the face, angled away from the camera, is the one facing the light source. The result can be sculptural and flattering.

Portrait photo of a man

How Do You Achieve Different Types of Face Lighting?

To be a successful portrait photographer, you’ll need to understand all these types of lighting. Then you can pick whichever one is most suitable for the portrait photos you want to create.
Here are the answers to some of the most common questions when it comes to face lighting.

How to Achieve Loop Lighting?

If you want to create loop lighting, it means creating a small shadow of the subject’s nose on his or her cheek. The light source you use needs to be somewhat above their eye level. Angle it down just the right amount to create the size of shadow you’re looking for.
Put your sitter in position, then move your light source until you have the shadow just right. It shouldn’t fuse with the shadow of their cheek, and it shouldn’t be too large.
If you have the light too high, you’ll lose the catch-lights in their eyes – resulting in a lifeless image. The ideal angle will be somewhere in the region of 45°.

Portrait photo of a woman
Image copyright (c) Headshot London

What Is Butterfly Lighting Used For?

Butterfly lighting involves a light source coming from above and behind the camera. This will create a butterfly-shaped shadow under your sitter’s nose.
It also creates shadows under the cheekbones and chin. These can also be extremely flattering. It is often used for fashion and glamour photography. Wrinkles are less evident and faces appear slimmer.
Position the light just above the level of your subject’s eyes. Use a reflector under their chin to emphasize their cheekbones.

Black and white photo of a man
Image copyright (c) Headshot London

How Do You Do Split Lights?

Split lighting involves setting up a light source to the side of the portrait subject. This way, one side of his or her face is lit, while the other side remains in shadow.
The result can be bold and dramatic. It is generally thought of as a masculine style of studio portraiture – though this doesn’t always have to be the case.
It’s quite straightforward to achieve. Set up your light on one side at a 90° angle, positioned just a little way behind them.
Aim to set the position of the light so that even the eye on the shadow side picks up a small catch-light. You can ask your sitter to move their head slightly until you achieve just the angle you need.

Black and white portrait photo of a woman
Image copyright (c) Headshot London

How Do You Set Up a Rembrandt Light?

This type of portrait light is a little more complex to achieve but well worth the effort. Rembrandt lighting is distinctive by the small triangle of light on one cheek, made by the meeting of the nose and cheek shadows. That side of the face is primarily in shadow apart from the cheekbone and the eye.
For this to work, your sitter should be angled slightly away from the light source. This needs to come from above, to create a shadow of the nose across the lower part of the cheek.
It works best for faces that have prominent cheekbones and medium or larger noses.
This type of face lighting isn’t always easy, so practice and experimentation is the key here.

Portrait photo of a man sitting
Image copyright (c) Headshot London

How Do You Set Lighting for Portraits?

How do you decide what style of face lighting to use for your portrait shot? It will depend, generally, on two things.
Firstly, the type of portrait you’re trying to achieve. Is it a formal portrait for work? If this is the case, keep it straight forward and flattering – loop lighting could be the answer.
For glamour shots and modelling, butterfly lighting gives an injection of sophistication. It flatters faces with good cheekbones.
Split lighting and Rembrandt lighting are best saved for something more dramatic. They can be put to good use for artists, musicians, and performers.
The other consideration is the shape of your subject’s face. It will determine how successful some of the more complex portrait lighting styles can be.
Practice all the styles on different face shapes until you know what works and what doesn’t.

Black and white portrait photo of a woman
Image copyright (c) Headshot London


To become a true master at face lighting, you need to put in the work. Each photographer has their own style and preferences. This is why different clients choose to use you.
Portrait lighting is a skill that you’ll want to master so you can build your own unique portfolio.