Portrait Lighting

My portrait lighting consists of four lights, a key light, a fill, a hair light & a background light.

Key Light

Key Light:

The principle light in a lighting setup which creates the pattern of highlight and shadow in the image.


The key light is the first light I like to setup.
This is my attempt at ‘Rembrandt’ Lighting. This is the style of lighting Rembrandt would often use for his paintings, where a small triangle of light below the eye on the shadow side can be seen. My example uses a very small light which deliberately results in very harsh contrasty lighting to clearly show the effect of each light. Usually I would use an umbrella  or softbox for much softer lighting for a portrait. With key light alone there is very little detail in the shadows and no separation from the background. Although this is very dramatic, and is not wrong, most portraits use a more balanced contrast ratio.



Fill light

Fill Light: Light that is used to lighten the shadows created by the key light.

The fill light is the second light to setup after positioning the key light. It’s principle purpose is to lighten the deepest shadows for a more pleasing contrast ratio and so that detail can be seen in the shadows. The fill light shouldn’t cast any visible shadows that would be competing with the key light, and the closer to the camera’s axis the better it is to achieve this. My example uses a large softbox placed behind me.  A second purpose of the fill light is to provide catch lights in an eye that would otherwise be in total shadow.


Hair/ Accent Light

Hair/ Accent Light:

The hair light provides just enough light to distinguish the sitter’s hair from a similar background, which  gives the overall image a more spacial 3D effect. Usually less is more, and shouldn’t distract from the sitter’s face. This example uses a honeycomb insert on a strobe that is positioned high above the sitter and faces the key light. The honeycomb filter prevents unwanted light spill.


Background Light

Background Light:

An above the shoulder glow provides depth and separation between the sitter and the background compared to a uniformly lit background.


 Finished Portrait Lighting