Photo Blog

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.


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



High & Low Key Studio Portraits