Discovering the main portrait lighting techniques

How to take breathtaking pictures dealing with portrait lighting techniques


” Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman


As the founder of the Kodak Company said, learning to manipulate light is an essential skill for a photographer.
How we can learn to master it?
My suggestion is to begin working with the right light source, then searching for a specific lighting style that fits your subject and in the end to identify the portrait lighting techniques that guarantees to elevate the quality of your photography.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Find your light source

There are some light sources that works very well for portraiture and each creates a unique result: natural and artificial light.

Natural light

If you’re shooting outside, the best approach is to shoot late in the afternoon when sunlight isn’t so harsh. If you’re shooting indoors, you can easily soften light by blocking off sunlight from a window with a white bedsheet.

Artificial light

Another option is to shoot using artificial lighting.
This involves everything from studio strobes to continuous lighting and, of course, you can also use an external flash to illuminate your model, and, doing this, you are free to shoot just about anywhere at any time of day.

Choose your lighting style

First of all, depending on what fits better for the model you have, photographers typically use two main lighting styles for portraiture : broad lighting and short lighting.

Broad lighting

Broad lighting refers to when the highlighted side of a model’s face is closer to the camera than the shaded side of their face. This produces a larger area of light on the face, and a shadow side which appears smaller. This type of lighting tends to widen (or broaden) the features of your subject. Save this technique for when you photograph subjects with narrow facial features.

Short lighting

Short lithing is the opposite of broad lighting.
Instead of turning slightly away from the light source, your model is facing towards it.  Notice how the part of the face that is turned away from the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the near side of the face, closer to the camera, creating the appearance of a slimmer face.

Identify your portrait lighting technique

The portrait lighting techniques are basically the shadows created on your model’s face depending on the type and position of the light source. Any of the following portrait lighting techniques can be either broad or short.

Rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the dutch painter often used this pattern of light in his paintings.
Its use of  light and dark produces more dramatic pictures than other lighting patterns. What makes Rembrandt lighting distinct from other patterns is the triangle of light it casts on your model’s cheek (on the side that’s in the shadow).
To create Rembrandt lighting the subject must turn slightly away from the light. The light must be above the top of their head so that the shadow from their nose falls down towards the cheek.

Butterfly lighting

Butterfly lighting is often used for studio portraits because it lights up the entire face and produces the least shadows.
Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above eye or head level of the subject. The photographer is basically shooting underneath the light source for this pattern.

Split lighting

This technique’s name is because this pattern literally splits the face into equal halves with one side being in the light, and the other in shadow.
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.
Use it when you want to add some mystery or drama to your portrait.

Loop lighting

Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subjects noses on their cheeks.
To create loop lighting, the light source must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera. If the light is too harsh and creates strong shadows, diffuse it by placing a reflector opposite the light source.


These are the main portrait lighting techniques with which I suggest you to practice over and over until they become easy and automatic for you.

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