Portrait Lighting Styles

A portrait lighting system usually includes at least two light sources, the main and the fill light. Other light sources such as background lights and accent lights can be added, as well. The Main Light, which is also called the main light, is the dominant light source in a portrait lighting setup. Therefore, portrait lighting styles are defined by the relationship of the Main Light to the mask, or front, of the subject’s face. Two factors determine the style of lighting. The first factor is the side of the face that the Main Light is directed toward.

Broad Lighting:

Broad Lighting ExampleTo create a broad light, pose your subject to show a 2/3 or 3/4 view of the face and direct your main light toward the side of the face that is closest to the camera. A broad light can be used to add weight to a face that is too thin. Years ago, teachers of photography told us that broad lighting was the feminine style of lighting. This is the sort of rulebook thinking we need to put behind us.

Short Lighting:

Short Lighting SampleTo create a short light, pose your subject to show a 2/3 or 3/4 view of the face and direct your main light toward the side of the face that is furthest away from the camera. Short light can be used to slenderize a face that is too heavy. Although short lighting was considered the masculine style of lighting, today this style is used more than any other, when photographing women as well as men.

The second factor that defines lighting style is the relationship between the angle of the Main Light and the subject’s nose axis.

45 degree Lighting or Rembrandt lighting:

Direct your Main Light toward your subject’s face at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. You can use 45 degree light from the broad side, or the short side and to light either a full face or profile portrait. The Main Light should be placed higher than the subject’s head and is directed down and at an angle of about 45 degrees. One characteristic of 45 degree lighting is the triangle of light from the Main Light that is on the shadow side of the subject’s face. 45 degree lighting is also known as Rembrandt lighting because it is the style of lighting that is seen in many of his paintings.

Butterfly or Glamour Lighting:

The term, “Butterfly Lighting,” comes from a characteristic butterfly shaped shadow beneath the subject’s nose. If you want to use butterfly lighting you should line your Main Light up along your subject’s nose axis and then raise the light until you see the characteristic shadow. This style of lighting is also known as glamour lighting because it was used extensively by the great Hollywood portrait photographers of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Although light placement is identical for butterfly and glamour lighting, photographers such as George Hurrell gave it a special look by using a spotlight as the Main Light rather than a softer light source. If you move your Main Light a little to the left or right, you will change your lighting style into a modified butterfly pattern.

Split Lighting:

Split lighting divides the face along its center. Split Lighting is probably the least used style of portrait lighting, but it can be very effective. The easiest way to create split lighting is to place your Main Light just as you would for 45° lighting. While watching the patch of light on the shadow side of your subject’s face, lower the Main Light and move it to the side until the shadow-side highlight disappears. If you want to add an accent of light to the shadow, move it back just a little until a very small touch of light reappears on the shadow side of the face.

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