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The word ‘photography’ is the fusion of two Greek words, phōtos and graphé, together meaning ‘drawing with light’. To a photographer light is everything, and thousands of books have been written on how to read light, how to capture it in outstanding landscapes, how to create compelling portrait lighting, and more.

And while many of those books are certainly worth reading for their in-depth takes on how to master light, there are a few basic patterns that you can easily learn to get started on using lighting, specifically in a portrait photography setting.

This article will teach you how to create some of the most essential studio lighting techniques as well as offer some portrait lighting tips to help you along as you go.

Portrait lighting: medium shot of woman with wind-blown hair

The way you light a portrait will set the mood of your image.

Natural Light vs. Studio Lighting

Often, the whole ‘portrait lighting setup’ thing can be intimidating for beginners who may think that working with ambient light will be easier.

This, unfortunately, is not always the case, as dedicated artificial lights have some important advantages:

  • They allow you be much more flexible and creative in lighting your model.
  • They enable you to control exposure much more than in scenarios where you’re just using ambient light.

Portrait lighting: low key portrait simulating a singer on stage

A bit more about this second point: in order to have a correct exposure with natural light, even when mixing on-camera flash and ambient light, you have to match your camera settings to ambient light.

The risk is that you may end up using too slow of a shutter speed, particularly if you do not have fast f/1.4-2.8 lenses.

With artificial lights, instead, you can set your aperture, ISO and shutter speed as you like (my go-to settings are f/8, ISO 200, 1/125) and simply adjust the light power accordingly. It’s way easier and I find that I can shoot with virtually any lens available on the market, cheap kit zoom lenses included.

Portrait lighting: balancing flash and ambient light outdoors

Balancing flash and ambient light in the outdoors. Settings: f/4.5, 1/80 sec, ISO 200.

If you are not familiar with studio equipment, have a look at this article about creating a home studio and its tips about studio lighting gear.

Finally, while this article assumes you will use flash lights, some schemes can be reproduced easily by shooting next to a window with a reflector to provide some fill light.

Understanding Light

The first property of light you will encounter when dealing with portrait lighting is its hard or soft quality.

A hard light casts strong, dark and defined shadows, while a soft light produces lighter shadows, with more gradual transition between dark and bright areas of the image.

What makes light hard or soft is not the kind of source, but the ratio between the apparent size of its source compared to that of the subject.

For example, a bare flashgun will produce a harder light when you photograph people than when you photograph, insects.

Portrait of young boy lit with hard light from direct flash

A direct flash produced a very hard light on my son, creating deep and defined shadows under his chin and on the background.

Light modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes, as well as flash bounced off of a white wall, will soften the flash light because they effectively become the light source, many times larger than the actual flash.

Portrait of young boy taken with on-camera flash bounced off of a white wall

By simply bouncing the on-camera flash on the wall, I was able to get a much softer and more pleasant light.

The last thing to know about light is that its intensity decays following an inverse square law.

Practically speaking, this means that every time the distance between the light source and the subject is doubled, the light intensity on the subject is reduced by a factor of four.

This property is responsible for the effect called ‘light fall-off’, often used in portraiture to better control the light pattern on your model.

Single Light Setups

Working with a single light source is a great way to learn the classic lighting patterns used in portrait photography and it allows you to concentrate more on the artistic side of portraiture, rather than technicalities.

The downloadable cheatsheet below summarises the relative positions of flash, camera, and model for the most popular classical portrait lighting setups: split lighting, loop lighting, butterfly lighting, Rembrandt lighting, rim lighting, and silhouette lighting.

This great glossary for portrait photography terms provides you with the actual definitions for those terms.

Single Light Setup Cheatsheet

Cheatsheet of single light portrait lighting patterns with diagram and examples

This scheme shows the relative position of light, camera and model to create some of the most common lighting setups used in studio portrait photography.

As can see in the scheme above, every portrait lighting setup creates a distinct light pattern on your model, which depends on the specific position of the light relative to the model’s nose.

The position of the camera, on the other hand, will mostly affect the face lighting-to-shadow ratio (broad and short light).

Self-portrait of the photographer illustrating butterfly light on 3/4 profile view

Moving the camera on my side to take this self-portrait did not change the butterfly light pattern on my face.

Low key portrait illustrating short lighting

Moving the camera to the dark side of your model will result in a short lit image.

Multiple Light Setups

Once you have mastered portrait lighting patterns with a single light source, you can begin to explore multiple light setups.

Using multiple lights is how professional portrait photographers make studio portraits, as more subtle and complicated light patterns are possible with multiple lights. Through multiple lights it’s possible to separate your model from the background, and so on.

Three-quarters portrait of man illustrating the clamshell lighting pattern

Clamshell lighting is a classic go-to setup. A key light, a fill light and a background light are often used.

The various lights in such setups are usually named after their function:

  • Key light – The main light for the scene. It determines the light pattern and is the first number listed in lighting ratios (e.g. in a lighting ratio of 4:1, the key light is represented by the 4).
  • Fill lights – Used to fill (lighten) the shadows, fill lights are generally weaker than the key light. This is the second number listed in lighting ratios (e.g. in a lighting ratio of 4:1, the fill light is represented by the 1).
  • Hair/separation/rim lights – These lights are used to prevent your model from blending in too much with the background. They are usually placed to the side, behind the model, thus highlighting parts of his/her figure and contours.
  • Background light – Used to light the background, a background light is particularly useful for high key portraits. It can also be used as separation light for your model or, together with some coloured gels, to alter the colour of the background.

Multiple lights also make it easy to alter the contrast in the image by changing the ratio of light between the key light and the fill lights. Traditionally, high contrast images, with a key-to-fill lighting ratio of 8:1 or more, best suit male models, while more balanced ratios such as 4:1 or 3:1 or less are more appropriate for female models.

Just remember, these are just guidelines: in photography, rules are there to be bent or broken.

Case Studies

Let’s see how to put in practice the basic concepts discussed above by considering few case studies of some typical light patterns.

Split and ‘Hero’ Lighting

This highly contrasted light pattern is often used to create portraits in a low key style.

Example of split lighting pattern used in black and white portrait

Extreme split lighting produces highly contrasted images, often used with male models and for low key, black and white portraits.

Split lighting is the quintessential example of side lighting and, perhaps, the simplest of all lighting setups: line up a single, bare, flash with your model’s shoulder, and take the photo from directly in front your model.

Light plan illustrating the split lighting setup

Diagram illustrating the split lighting setup. The background light is optional.

An interesting variation occurs when you mirror the flash setup, as in the scheme below, thus creating the so-called ‘hero lighting’ pattern.

Light plan illustrating 'hero' lighting setup.

The hero lighting setup.

This setup is named after the powerful mood it conveys, as it produces a strong shadow in the middle of your model’s face. The shadow’s thickness is controlled by positioning the model slightly in front of the lights, for a larger shadow, or behind them, for a thinner shadow.

Portrait of older man lit with hero lighting

A strong, confident pose is best highlighted by the hero lighting. Here the model was in front the lights, as you can tell from the broad shadow on his face and torso.

Loop Lighting: The King of the Classic Lighting Setups

Literally every article on flash portraiture proposes this simple one-light setup, which suits both male and female models, particularly when light modifiers such as an umbrella or a softbox are used to create soft light.

Low key portrait illustrating loop lighting with light modified by umbrella

A classic portrait with the loop lighting setup while using a medium sized umbrella to soften the light.

To keep your model from blending in with the background you can add a separation light, creating the most classic of the two-light setups.

Light plan illustrating soft loop / Rembrandt lighting setup

A classic one-light setup to create a soft loop (or Rembrandt) lighting on your model. The background light is optional.

If you are after a more punchy look and feel, try replacing your umbrella with a grid, which produces a tighter splash of light.

Butterfly and Clamshell Lighting

Butterfly lighting was very popular in the 30s among Hollywood photographers and it is named after the small, butterfly-shaped shadow cast under the model’s nose. When shooting a female model using this lighting pattern, an umbrella or a softbox is typically used to soften the light.

Low key self-portrait of the author using butterfly lighting setup

Self-portrait using butterfly lighting.

This portrait lighting scheme can leave deep shadows under the model’s chin, cheekbones and nose.

Light plan illustrating the butterfly lighting setup with optional background light

This light plan shows the butterfly lighting setup, with the optional background light.

To disperse those shadows a fill light is added right under the key light, lighting the model from below. This light arrangement is known as a clamshell setup, and it is one of those go-to setups that will never disappoint you.

Portrait of woman taken using clamshell lighting pattern

Clamshell is a classic portrait lighting setup that will never let you down. You can see the two lights leaving two distinct catchlights in each one of the model’s eyes.

Usually, the fill light is weaker than the key light so as to leave some gentle shadows, and it can be either a reflector or a second flashgun (set to a lower power than the key light).

High key self-portrait of the author using a clamshell lighting pattern

A clamshell lighting setup using a reflector as fill light leaves some light shadows on the model. This portrait lighting pattern suits both low and high key styles.

Working with Rim Lighting

Rim light is quite interesting, as it can be used to create images with a dark, mysterious, or sometimes abstract feeling.

Rim light alone can produce great moody and mysterious low key images.

It can also be used as a separation light in multiple light setups.

Portrait illustrating rim light in use

When combined with other lights, a rim light does an excellent job in separating your model from the background.

Setting this up is a no-brainer: hide a flashgun behind the model to light him/her from behind. If you want to highlight a complete figure you need two lights, one at either side of your model, pointing back at him/her.

Light plan illustrating rim lighting using one or two lights

Rim lighting can be done with a single light or with two lights, depending on how much of the model’s contour you want to highlight.

To have a nice, thin, rim light highlighting only the contour of your model’s figure, mind your flash power: too much of it and the light will spill over the contour and light his or her anterior side (the front).

Balancing Flash and Ambient Light

When doing flash photography in studio we tend to suppress ambient light so that it will not affect our portrait lighting setup.

Sometimes though,  you may want to combine flash and ambient light in staging your portrait.

To successfully mix these two kind of lights, you have first to meter for the ambient light with the chosen combination of aperture, ISO and shutter speed, and then match that reading with your flash.

A flash meter, such the Sekonic L-308s is a welcome accessory when working with flash lights, but even more so when you are mixing them with ambient light.

Humorous portrait of author and son lit exemplifying butterfly lighting

Never trust a dad if biscuits are around. For this environmental portrait I used the butterfly lighting setup.

Indoor Portraiture with Natural Light

It is possible to do great indoor portraiture by using using only natural light coming in from a window.

Light plan illustrating split lighting using natural light and a reflector

A classic way to create split lighting for portraits taken with natural light from a window and a circular reflector.

Of all lighting setups, split lighting is the easiest one to recreate with ambient light.

Example of portrait lit using natural light in split lighting pattern

Having your model sit next to a window is the easiest way to use split lighting with natural light. Settings: 21mm, f/8, 1/30 sec, ISO 100.

A reflector can be placed on the opposite side of model (facing the windows), thus working as a fill light to brighten up the shadows and create more balanced images.

Portrait of man with glasses lit using split lighting with a reflector

Subtle split lighting can be easily achieved by using a reflector in place of a fill light.

Finally, when working with ambient light you have to pay attention to the environment you are shooting into, as the surroundings will be visible in the image.

Keep that background uncluttered and non distracting and use the model’s surroundings to stage the portrait and set the its mood.

Example portrait lit with subtle split lighting

This empty background with just a hint of a bed in the room and a big window produces a spare, minimal feel. Settings: 14mm, f/5, 1/30 sec, ISO 100.

The real challenge is to keep the shutter speed reasonably high, so that your model will look sharp, while avoid underexposing too much you scene.

Low Key or High Key Style?

These two styles strongly dictate the mood of the final image and some light patterns and subjects work better with low key style, while others deliver better results in high key, depending on what you’re going for.

In a low key portrait, about 80% of the tones across the image are dark and, with the right light, it conveys a dark, powerful, dramatic or mysterious mood. Here is a nice tutorial from Josh about how to do low key portraiture.

Extreme low key self portrait of the author in the style of Game of Thrones poster

This extreme low-key self portrait is my tribute to the Night King as portrayed in the promotional poster of Game of Thrones, season 7.

High key images, on the other hand, have most of the tones on the bright side of the scale, thus creating a more lively and joyful mood: it is not by chance that most stock images portraying people are high key, as well as newborn and toddler portraits.

High key portrait of a baby wearing hat

High key portraits, with their light backgrounds, bring a brighter mood to images.

Technically, the difference between low and high key styles is that for high key images you have to light up your background, or else it will come out grey.

If you want to ensure that your background will be on the white side when you are taking headshots or portraits of newborns you can even use a large softbox (with a flash inside) or a window as a background.

Conclusions

This post, together with the info in the articles on the terms used in portrait photography, creating a home studio and doing low key photography, you have all the info you need to deliver striking portraits in a number of different styles.

A last word of advice, though: don’t get stuck on getting precisely this or that portrait lighting setup—these patterns are just a starting point for your exploration of lighting. Don’t be afraid to improvise and experiment with your light sources and never forget to have fun.

Humorous self-portrait of the author and daughter lit with the hero lighting pattern

Despite the use of hero lighting, I lost the battle with my 6-month-old princess. One image is worth more than a thousand words!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Andrea Minoia

Andrea Minoia is an enthusiast photographer based in Brussels, Belgium. He is mainly active in portraiture and table top photography, but he does enjoy to get busy with astrophotography and infrared photography. You can follow his work on his regularly updated photo stream on 500px and follow him on google+.You can also get in touch with him via his personal website .