Portrait Lighting Patterns

Rembrandt Lighting
This is based on the lighting pattern seen in many of Rembrandt van Rijn’s portrait paintings, where a small triangle of light is seen below the eye in deep shadow.


Although Rembrandt’s paintings typically had no catchlights, most photographic portraits benifit from catchlights in both eyes. It is considered a masculine style of lighting and this dramatic style is used to show strength and elegance.

This is the same  photo as above taken from a different angle, to display ‘short’ lighting, but is lit only with the key light. This example uses a very large contrast ratio for dramatic effect.


Loop Lighting
This is probably the most common style of portrait lighting pattern as it is simple to create and flattering to most people. It is similar to Rembrandt lighting but the key light is brought forward to around a 45 deg angle from the sitter. The shadow cast by the nose does not meet the upper lip, or of the shadow on the cheek.


Loop lighting also looks good from any angle.


Butterfly Lighting

This is a glamorous style of lighting, created by an overhead key light in front of the sitter. It is characterized by a lack of strong shadows except for a ‘butterfly’ shaped shadow below the nose.





Paramount Lighting
This uses butterfly lighting with an almost overhead key light. Paramount lighting is characterized by a black & white image, soft focus, strong back lighting, a low camera angle, a high contrast ratio.

This is a variation of butterfly lighting frequently used in Hollywood portraits the 1930’s & 40’s. The following iconic portrait of Marlene Dietrich.

Clamshell Lighting. 
Clamshell lighting consists of a key light directly above a fill light, with a small gap in between through which the photo is taken. In this example I’ve used a large softbox for my key light and a small umbrella below as fill light. This arrangement can be seen in the catch lights in the eyes. Although it is very flat lighting it is very glamorous with almost no shadows.


An alternative clamshell arrangement is with two equal key lights placed side by side in front of the sitter, as shown below.



Power Lighting
This lighting setup uses a key light at the same height as the center of the sitter’s nose. The nose casts a triangle shaped shadow. This shadow can be a little distracting, but with a strong fill light the effect is quite glamorous.



Split Lighting
The key light is placed at one side, and is used for dramatic effect.


This will often have no fill or background lighting, as shown below.


Sport Lighting
This uses backlighting on both sides from a tight angle behind the sitter. This reflects light rather than illuminates the subject. It is good for lighting the outline of the subject, and is often used to dramatically accentuate the sculpted bodies of athletes. My example has both lights forward enough to illuminate the sides of the nostrils. My model needed a quick wig change to demonstrate this lighting style.



Halloween Lighting
The sitter is lit from below, for a supernatural effect.



Colored Gels
Any lighting setup can be modified with the use of colored gels. This example uses a green gel over the hair light and a red light on the background light.