6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know

6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know


In classical portraiture there are several things you need to control and think about to make a flattering portrait of your subjects, including: lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view. I suggest you get to know these basics inside out, and as with most things, then you can break the rules. But if you can nail this one thing you’ll be well on your way to great people photos. In this article we’re going to look at lighting pattern: what is it, why it’s important, and how to use it. Perhaps in another future article, if you enjoy this one, I’ll talk about the other aspects of good portraiture.

Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Butterfly lighting

There are also Broad and Short lighting which are more of a style, and can be used with most of the patterns above. Let’s look at each of them individually.

1. Split Lighting


Split lighting is exactly as the name implies – it splits the face exactly into equal halves with one side being in the light, and the other in shadow. It is often used to create dramatic images for things such as a portrait of a musician or an artist. Split lighting tends to be a more masculine pattern and as such is usually more appropriate or applicable on men than it is for women. Keep in mind however, there are no hard and fast rules, so I suggest you use the information I provide here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the guideline whenever you’re not sure.

split lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt.png

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. Where you place the light in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In true split lighting, the eye on the shadow side of the face does pick up light in the eye only. If by rotating their face a bit more light falls on their cheek, it’s possible their face just isn’t ideal for split lighting.

NOTE: any lighting pattern can be created on any facial view (frontal view showing both ears, or ¾ face, or even profile). Just keep in mind that your light source must follow the face to maintain the lighting pattern. If they turn their head the pattern will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the patten just by them rotating their head a little.

What the heck is a “catchlight”?


Notice in this photo above that the baby’s eyes have a reflection of the actual light source in them. It shows up as a little white spot, but if we look closer we can actually see the shape of the light I used in this portrait.


See how the bright spot is actually hexagon with a dark centre? That’s the light I used which was a small hexagon shaped soft box on my Canon speedlight.

This is what is known as the “catchlight”. Without the eye of the subject catching this light, the eyes will appear dark, dead and lifeless. You need to ensure that at least one eye has a catchlight to give the subject life. Notice it also lightens the iris and brightens the eye overall. This also adds to the feeling of life and gives them a sparkle.

2. 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 (depends on the person, you have to learn how to read people’s faces).


Look at this image to see where the shadows fall, and on their left sides you can see a small shadow of their noses. In loop lighting the shadow of the nose and that of the cheek do NOT touch. Keep the shadow small and slightly downward pointing, but be aware of having your light source too high which will create odd shadows and cause loss of the catchlights. Loop light is probably the most common or popular lighting pattern as it is easy to create and flatters most people.

loop lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt.png

In this diagram the black backdrop represents the bank of trees behind them. The sun is coming over the trees but they are completely in the shade. A white reflector is used at camera left to bounce light back into the subjects’ faces. The reflector may or may not be in the sun but you can still pick up light even if it’s not. Just play with the angles, by changing the placement of the reflector you can change the lighting pattern. For Loop lighting it will need to be somewhere around 30-45 degrees from the camera. It also needs to be slightly above their eye level so the shadow or loop of their nose angles down towards the corner of the mouth. That is one mistake I often see beginners make with reflectors is to place them down low and angle it up. That lights up the bottom of your subject’s nose and does not create a flattering pattern.

3. Rembrandt Lighting


Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the painter often used this pattern of light in his paintings, as you can see in his self portrait here. Rembrandt lighting is identified by the triangle of light on the cheek. Unlike loop lighting where the shadow of the nose and cheek do not touch, in Rembrandt lighting they do meet which, creates that trapped little triangle of light in the middle. To create proper Rembrandt lighting make sure the eye on the shadow side of the face has light in it and has a catch light, otherwise the eye will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle. Rembrandt lighting is more dramatic, so like split lighting it creates more mood and a darker feel to your image. Use it appropriately.


Rembrandt lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt.png

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. Not every person’s face is ideal for creating Rembrandt lighting. If they have high or prominent cheek bones it will probably work. If they have a small nose or flat bridge of the nose, it may be difficult to achieve. Again, keep in mind you don’t have to make exactly this pattern or another, just so long as the person is flattered, and the mood you want is created – then the lighting is working. If you are using window light and the window goes down to the floor, you may have to block off the bottom portion with a gobo or card, to achieve this type of lighting.

4. Butterfly Lighting


Butterfly lighting is aptly named for the butterfly shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. The photographer is basically shooting underneath the light source for this pattern. It is most often used for glamour style shots and to create shadows under the cheeks and chin. It is also flattering for older subjects as it emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.

butterfly lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt-1.png

Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above eye or head level of the subject (depends on the person). It is sometimes supplemented by placing a reflector directly under their chin, with the subject themselves even holding it! This pattern flatters subjects with defined or prominent cheek bones and a slim face. Someone with a round, wide face would look better with loop or even split to slim their face. This pattern is tougher to create using windowlight or a reflector alone. Often a harder light source like the sun or a flash is needed to produce the more defined shadow under the nose.

5. Broad Lighting

Broad lighting is not so much a particular pattern, but a style of lighting. Any of the following patterns of light can be either broad or short: loop, Rembrandt, split.


Broad lighting is when the subject’s face is slightly turned away from centre, and the side of the face which is toward the camera (is broader) is in the light. This produces a larger area of light on the face, and a shadow side which appears smaller. Broad lighting is sometimes used for “high key” portraits. This type of lighting makes a person’s face look broader or wider (hence the name) and can be used on someone with a very slim face to widen it. Most people however want to look slimmer, not wider so this type of lighting would not be appropriate for someone who is heavier or round faced.

broad lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt.png

To create broad lighting the face is turned away from the light source. Notice how the side of the face that is towards the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the far side of the face, furthest from the camera. Simply put broad lighting illuminates the largest part of the face showing.

6. Short Lighting


Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. As you can see by the example here, short lighting puts the side turned towards the camera (that which appears larger) in more shadow. It is often used for low key, or darker portraits. It puts more of the face in shadow, is more sculpting, add 3D qualities, and is slimming and flattering for most people.

short lighting by Darlene Hildebrandt.png

In short lighting, the face is turned towards the light source this time. 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, closet to the camera. Simply put short lighting has shadows on the largest part of the face showing.

Putting it all together

Once you learn how to recognize and create each of the different lighting patterns you can then start to learn how and when to apply them. By studying your subject’s face you will learn which lighting pattern will be best for them, and for the type of portrait and mood desired. Someone with a very round face that wants to appear slimmer in a grad portrait, will be lit very differently than someone that wants a promo shot for their band that makes them appear mean or angry. Once you know all the patterns, how to recognize and master quality of light, direction of light and ratio (we’ll discuss that in a future article) then you will be well equipped to handle the challenge.

Of course it is much easier to change the lighting pattern if you can move the light source. However if the main light source is the sun, or a window – it’s a bit tougher to do that. So what you will need to do instead of moving the light, is to have the subject rotate in respect to the light to change the direction it falls on them. Or change your camera position. Or change their position. So basically move the things you can move in relation to the light, if you cannot move the light source itself.

Practice Exercise

Corral yourself a subject (as in a real live person, not your dog) and practice creating each of the lighting patterns we just discussed including:

  • butterfly lighting
  • loop lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • split lighting

Remember to show both broad lighting and short lighting – for each of the different patterns, where applicable. Don’t worry about any other aspect (ratio, fill light, etc) for now, just concentrate getting the patterns down pat first. Use light from a window, a floor lamp with a bare bulb (take the shade off) or the sun – but try and use a light source that you can see what’s happening (I’d suggest that you do not try using flash until you’ve got more experience, it’s harder to learn with because you can’t see it until after the photo is taken) This also works best to start out with the subject facing the camera directly, no turning except to create the broad and short.

Show us your results please and share any challenges or problems you encountered. I’ll try and help you solve them so you and others can learn from it, and get better for next time.

If you’re on Pinterest – here’s a graphic to save this tutorial.

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Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Rhonda August 24, 2013 06:41 am

    This is one of the best tutorial on lighting I have found anywhere. The graphics are most helpful too. Thank you!!!

  • Sujit kumar August 22, 2013 06:56 pm

    Very nice tips of lighting for the new photographers.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt August 15, 2013 07:32 am

    @Chris - yes agreed!

    @Lewis so glad you found it then!

  • Lewis August 15, 2013 01:11 am

    I've been looking for a simple but effective explanation of lighting patterns for a while. This is brilliant. Many thanks.

  • Chris Renton August 8, 2013 12:28 am

    Very good article, and nice to see all examples created using just window light. I use short lighting regularly as it definitely slims the face and goes down well with clients!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt June 13, 2013 08:51 am

    thanks Rik!

  • Rik Pennington June 12, 2013 11:18 pm

    Really great article Darlene, explained clearly and easy to follow in the real world. The biggest challenge is creating these portrait styles with natural light only but once you know what to look for the results are consistently good. Use of light in portraits is so key but often so misunderstood.

  • Lupita May 8, 2013 02:10 am


  • Darlene April 13, 2013 02:12 am

    Hi Karen - this is NOT done in a studio. There is NO lights and NO background. This is done using AVAILABLE light coming from a window and the background is a wall in the office I borrowed to do the portraits. That's it, simple. Sorry I can't be of more help but there is no background as such.

  • Karen April 10, 2013 04:36 am

    Hi Darlene,
    Thank you for the wonderful article. Could you PLEASE tell me what the background is that you are using for the photographs? Dark Gray? I love the look. Could you tell me the brand/color? Also, I am assuming these portraits were shot without any background light on the backdrop? I need to shoot some simple portraits of jr. High kids in a school play next week and this would be perfect.


  • Mark March 22, 2013 08:36 am

    I had to really study those images looking for the patterns discussed. Using the image of examples at the top of this article, I made myself a cheat-sheet of sorts.


    Did I get them all right?

  • Billy March 22, 2013 05:21 am

    Thanks for this very informative article.

  • Darlene March 16, 2013 03:38 am

    @cristian - great effort first of all, especially trying to set up a self portrait!

    Here's what I would suggest. First, this isn't split lighting. The main light is too far behind you and is more of what is called a rim light, or kicker light. You can do that sort of thing if you have multiple lights to work with, but if you only have one softbox/flash I'd put that more forward to light your face properly. That is why you are not getting catch lights in your eyes. The main light creates them, not the reflectors. Sometimes if you are using a second flash as a fill light it will create a catch light, but mostly a reflector isn't powerful enough to give you a nice clean one. This is what is making your left eye (in the right side of the photo) dark. You can see the shadow in your eye socket from that light. It is also too high which is another reason why it doesn't produce a catchlight.

    Second, your silver reflector is also too far behind you. In essence what you've created is cross lighting, with neither of them actually hitting the front of your face. This reflector is making the deep shadow in your right eye (left side on photo as we view it). It is too LOW. If you look at the light it produces in your eye I can see that it is about at eye level. You want it a bit higher. When you use a low angle for your lights it lights up the lower part of the chin/neck and adds weight to the person. It also lights up the tip and bottom of their nose which is not usually desirable.

    Lastly your reflector in the front is trying to fill in all those double shadows but it's not strong enough and even if it was you'd just end up with more cross shadows complicating the issue. Try and keep things simpler. I've done a couple of diagrams to show you what you've set up and how I'd suggest to modify it for a more flattering light on your face.

    diagram #1 - this is what you've set up, correct?

    diagram #2 - this is what I'd suggest to change it.

    Notice that the main light (softbox) is more around the front, keep it to the side if you want the split lighting. To help you get the pattern you want, do a test shot without any of the reflectors and you will be able to see better what your main light is doing. Then add in one reflector at a time, do another test. Build it one light at a time so you can see what they are doing. Make sure there is light in your eyes from the softbox, you want the light to be at about 10 o'clock on your eyeball - so not too high it disappears, and not too low as to light up your nostrils.

    Notice also that I have the reflector in front of the camera, not around the other side. I keep my reflectors closer to my main light so as not to produce a second shadow going the opposite direction to work against the main light. It's called wrap around lighting - you build your light around the subject.

    If you want a hair light, you can try a reflector for that, placed behind and up high behind you. Or if you have a second flash you can do a hair light with that. I didn't get into multiple light set ups in this article to keep it simpler to learn the lighting patterns first. Remember KISS - keep it simple is usually better. I would not use a second reflector in a set up like this.

  • Gileyuk March 15, 2013 10:01 pm

    Thanks for this well explained tutorial.

  • Cristian March 15, 2013 05:37 pm

    Hi, Darlene, I enjoyed your article. I"m experimenting with lighting, but haven't found someone with enough patience to pose for me, so I decided to try some self portraits. In the photo you will see, I tried a split lighting where main light (soft box, wireless flash) is behind me and above, a silver reflector on camera right, and I'm holding in hands a white reflector camera left. So the main light from behind, is bouncing in the silver reflector, which is bouncing on the white reflector. I went with this set up since all other lighting techniques would not give me a "3D" perspective without an additional light behind me. Now, I kind of like the hair light that main light creates, but I'm not getting the catch light with this set up. Also, I think the white reflector on the camera left, makes a shadow under the eye. Maybe I should have tried a silver one. What is your opinion about this can you give some thoughts ? Thank you, Cristian
    Oh.. here is the photo:

  • Cristian March 15, 2013 05:32 pm

    Hi, Darlene, I enjoyed your article. I"m experimenting with lighting, but haven't found someone with enough patience to pose for me, so I decided to try some self portraits. In the photo you will see, I tried a split lighting where main light (soft box, wireless flash) is behind me and above, a silver reflector on camera right, and I'm holding in hands a white reflector camera left. So the main light from behind, is bouncing in the silver reflector, which is bouncing on the white reflector. I went with this set up since all other lighting techniques would not give me a "3D" perspective without an additional light behind me. Now, I kind of like the hair light that main light creates, but I'm not getting the catch light with this set up. Also, I think the white reflector on the camera left, makes a shadow under the eye. Maybe I should have tried a silver one. What is your opinion about this can you give some thoughts ? Thank you, Cristian
    Oh.. here is the photo:
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/42371624@N02/8559294362/' title='Self Portrait' url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8520/8559294362_5aff9429a0_c.jpg']

  • Darlene March 12, 2013 08:42 am

    @bud sorry about that the diagram more closely represents the painting above her.

    I haven't used any lights to create these portraits including background lights - this was all done simply with the light from one window.

  • Bud March 12, 2013 01:54 am

    The Rembrandt lighting diagram does not seem to follow the photo of the model. Her head is turned opposite of the diagram. Also, there seemed to be no mention of the background lights that support the rest of the images. Otherwise, this is a good quick study of simple lighting. Thank you.

  • Aton March 8, 2013 09:59 pm

    Great! More power to you! This is helpful and easy to understand! :)

  • Lito Talucod February 16, 2013 04:53 pm

    Nice tutorial. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Maddie January 22, 2013 10:17 am

    Fantastic article! Thank you for taking the time to write and share it.

  • Star January 15, 2013 05:02 pm

    Thank you so much for this article. Very informative and now I finally understand these lighting scenarios.

  • Julie Holbeche-Maund January 10, 2013 11:31 pm

    Brilliant -one of the best and easiest explanations around lighting patterns I have seen. Will keep this in my book marks thank you

  • Subhash Dasgupta January 6, 2013 12:14 am

    Nicely explained. It will be helpful.

  • Naz January 4, 2013 05:18 am

    Darlene You've got soem awesome techiques and tips- lots of great info packed into shortish articles with great examples to show what you're talkign about- Your website has soem fantastic photography as well- and I noticed you are big on gettign correct angles to make the photos really dynamic too- To me, a great photo is one youl ook at and go 'wow- great photo' and know that if the angles or composition was even just a little different that the photo woudl fall apart- and that's soemthign that I think can be learned as well too- I notice a few of your articles here talk abotu different angles and such- and this kind of info is invaluable- thansk for the great articles-

  • Berni December 27, 2012 03:52 pm

    Hi Darlene

    I very much enjoyed your article. I think I will be able to follow some of these techniques and my results will improve I am sure.

    As many have said, well explained!

    All the best


  • Barry Perhamsky November 28, 2012 05:22 am

    Great tutorial!!!

  • Felipe Fragoso November 17, 2012 05:46 am

    Superb! Great tips to do the best photos we can, even when only a window is what we have! A must! Thanks a lot!

  • paul hepworth October 15, 2012 07:26 pm

    thanks for the information, a great time saver topics are direct and straight to the point.

  • myrtle October 10, 2012 08:41 pm

    Oh my! What an interesting post.. Enjoyed your blog.

  • Eeps August 13, 2012 12:39 am

    One of my favorite instructionals on this site. Thanx

  • Darlene May 29, 2012 01:24 pm

    @Product Photography - if by "fluorescent" you mean continuous lights, I would say that's good if they are neutral white or warm white. It doesn't matter what colour lighting you use, you can always do a custom white balance in camera to correct it anyway.

    Harsh lighting has to do with the quality of light which has to do with the size of the light source and the distance of it to the subject - nothing else. Harsh light is from a small light source such as bright sunlight, a bare bulb single light, an on camera flash. Soft light comes from an overcast or cloudy sky, large umbrella or softbox, or a large window with indirect light (no sun coming in directly). The latter are all better for making more flattering portraits. Harsh light is required to create texture and 3D qualities. Neither is right or wrong it all depends on what you want to achieve with the portrait.

  • Product Photography May 28, 2012 10:03 pm

    When natural lighting is not available, it is best to use florescent lights. Cool lighting is essential to use when photographing skin tones because if harsh lighting is used, the subject's good features can be hidden while their bad features are accentuated.

  • Darlene May 26, 2012 05:22 am

    Jackie, wow that's crazy! Now I get it!

    No thank you for reading, it's my pleasure to respond to comments.

  • jackie May 26, 2012 03:42 am

    @Darlene, ah yes! character! it is beginning to change in LA/NY, but in the Southeast (for the most part) the casting directors (CD's) want to see exactly what they are getting when the person walks through the door. any shadows or side poses are possible indication that the actor is hiding something...believe it or not ;). and some actually are hiding...scars, deep wrinkles, huge birthmarks, etc.... i've been on each side as a CD, and now currently as an actress and headshot photog. it's all about making the regional CD's and talent agents happy :). the actor has to look exactly like their headshot with no surprises....and the most frequent complaint in all regions? "DO THEY HAVE ANOTHER EAR?!" Lol. Thanks for replying, that's awesome of you to take the time!!

  • Darlene May 26, 2012 03:24 am

    Hi everyone, thanks for keeping the comments coming! I was away last week so I'll try and catch up on answering your questions.

    @Craig - for butterfly what you're looking at is the shadow under the nose that looks sort of like a butterfly wing. It will vary from person to person based on the shape of their nose and height of the light, but can you see that now?

    @Jackie - you say actors head shots need to be evenly lit, why is that? Is someone putting that requirement on them for you? I'd say just the opposite actually. Actors need to show their character, and you can't do that with flat lighting. You need the play of highlight and shadow to create more drama as it were.

    @Johnny to my knowledge flash does not hurt your eyes, nor does it damage newborns' eyes. I did some digging around after I read your comment and I can't find anything to say that it does damage them. I've personally been to Anne Geddes studio in New Zealand. Of course Anne is the master of photographing newborn babies. I can tell you that she takes the utmost care and consideration to make sure those babies are not harmed in any way. Safety is priority #1 in her studio. She does however use flash or strobe lighting. I'm sure that as she is a specialist in this she would have done research and if it was harmful she would not be doing it. This is all I could find on it with links to some doctors research on the topic http://www.sublime-light.com/index.php/2007/09/17/will-flash-damage-babies-sensitive-young-eyes/ and just a side note, the baby in the catchlights example was not newborn, she was about 6 weeks old. I'm not sure where the cutoff is for the term "newborn" though.

    @Kathy yes those topics are in the works but I've just gotten back from a 6 day trip and need to work on some of my images and write something for my site too. I'll do it as soon as I can, thanks for asking!

    @ljubo yes what Jayson has said is true it is broad lighting and sort of a loop but it's hard to see exactly because we see mostly the lit side of the face. The easiest way to make this into short lighting and change the pattern on the face is to turn the person's face more towards the window or light source. Take a look at the diagrams again and watch the face as they turn one way and then the other. You will see it go from broad to split to short as they turn. I hope that helps.

    Thanks to those that added their comments and found it helpful.

  • Pictureperfect May 25, 2012 03:28 am

    Excellent post! One of the most clear, concise, and informative examples of portrait photography I've seen to date. These tips can be easily incorporated into any photographer's "tool set" from beginner to professional and everything in between. Nicely done.

  • Ljubo May 22, 2012 09:59 pm

    @jayson Thank you Jayson! I am just a beginner and I have used only natural window light and dont have DSLR

  • Jayson May 22, 2012 08:45 am

    @ljubo to me that looks like, firstly, broad lighting ( ie main light on side of face pointing towards the camera- and not a very flattering style as it makes this, and most people, woman look more overweight. And the slightly higher position of the main takes it from almost split lighting to almost loop. The modifiers for the main and fill are soft boxes ( either small one for fill or umbrella) which reduce the hard shadows (also evident in reflection in eyes), and the ratio ( difference in intensity of the main and fill) is very low, which makes the shadows not as evident. Bottom line, this would have been a nicer, more flattering photo if short lighting utilised, and either full loop or perhaps butterfly lighting used. But at the end of the day just my opinion.

  • Ljubo May 22, 2012 12:58 am

    I dont know what pattern this could be http://www.flickr.com/photos/keselj/7149696901/in/photostream

  • Walter Pike May 21, 2012 06:11 pm

    extremely well explained - well done.

  • Marc Raymond Photography May 21, 2012 08:33 am

    This is one of the best explanations of lighting patterns I've seen. Great job!

  • Mikhail Anand May 21, 2012 12:06 am

    nice post..
    portraits from bombay: http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/dhobi-ghat/

  • Michael May 20, 2012 11:05 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. Great examples, my favorite is the Rembrandt and if i can get my daughter to sit still long enough I'll be trying them all out today.

  • Ali Rasheed May 20, 2012 04:18 pm

    this is really simple and explained very well

  • Debra May 20, 2012 06:47 am

    Great post. Clear and totally gettable. The portrait and lighting examples really pulled this teaching together for me. I'm anxious to try these techniques. I see the light! Thank you Darlene for taking to the time to put this together.

  • Anna Lear May 20, 2012 12:45 am

    Thank you for such a clear, well-illustrated article! Being self-taught I have lots of gaps in my knowledge, and I have been needing to learn more about both portraiture and lighting. Your article made it so easy to understand; now I can go out and play!

  • steve slater May 19, 2012 03:56 pm

    Natural light, natural pose


  • Smita May 19, 2012 03:38 pm

    Excellent matter! a potrait shoot to streghten my skills was what was on my list next..and this article only helps me get better .. thankyou so much!!!

  • Kathy May 19, 2012 02:38 pm

    I agree with Jayson that it would have been nice to have this information early as a student. I went through a lot of classes, tutoring, workshops, books, etc...none gave me the excellent, concise explanation you give in this article! I was just astounded. It was like a curtain opened for me. I've had my camera for over a year now trying to learn on my own. Now I really feel like I have something concrete to practice. Thank you so very much! Are you going to write similar articles for the other aspects like lighting ratio, facial view and angle of view soon? I sure hope so. You are a very good teacher.

  • Johnny Chase May 19, 2012 09:20 am

    This is a great article.

    However, I'd like to point out that it is ill advised to use a flash on a newborn. Their eyes are not yet developed enough to handle such an instant and extreme change in lighting. They also don't have the ability to anticipate a flash like adults do.

    You could just as easily get a 'catch light' using a natural source. And still light the baby in a beautiful way.

    Thanks again for the article! And please don't flash babies any more. :-)

  • jackie May 19, 2012 02:56 am

    Thank you, Darlene! This is a great concise 'cheat sheet' on the various types of lighting patterns - I greatly appreciate it! I work mostly with actors' headshots - which, for the most part, must be evenly lit. But as trends ebb and flow, these are excellent ways to determine what is best for each type of face. THANK YOU

  • Craig May 19, 2012 02:34 am

    Excellent and highly imformative article. A very interesting and educational read.

    Concisely written and in a simple, explanatory style. Thank you for taking the time Darlene;)

    PS. I get what Dona means about the photographs, but I think it is more to do with the monitor I'm using to view the images, combined with my limited knowledge of photography, i.e. not too sure about what I'm meant to be looking at regarding the butterfly shadow etc.

  • Paul May 19, 2012 01:30 am

    What a great article, thanks. Have bookmarked this one. I've read lots about lighting and portraits but think this gets the message over very well.

  • Jeff E Jensen May 18, 2012 11:22 pm

    Excellent article and some great tips! Thanks.

    Here's some of my recent favorite portraits:


  • Jayson May 18, 2012 09:30 pm

    Darlene, a fantastically written and informative tutorial with excellent and relevant supporting imagery. I am a professional photographer and your initial photos jumped out at me, very obviously, as broad, short, rembrandt, butterfly, loop and split, as i rattled them off in my head. All, also very obviously, lit by a large light source. I think your tutorial is perfect and I only wish I was exposed to such terrific examples when I went through phot school. I really enjoyed both the article and the 'light-bulb' moment responses. Well done and keep up the good work.

  • Martina May 18, 2012 08:01 pm

    Thank you so much for such an easy to follow and understand article, I look forward to others from you.

  • Marion Jackson May 18, 2012 03:00 pm

    An excellent writeup - I sure will learn a lot from this. Cannot wait to start putting it all into practise.
    Thank you so much.

  • Victoria May 18, 2012 02:49 pm

    Thank you so much! I love the examples so we can clearly understand what you are saying.

  • Bryan Villamor May 18, 2012 01:41 pm

    Nice post about basic lighting setup well detailed and informative :)

  • Elizabeth May 18, 2012 12:06 pm

    Great article! I never knew there are so many light angles. Thanks!

  • ccting May 18, 2012 11:40 am

    "lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view"

    Exactly, I learn & understand these basics, just need times to practice it.

  • Darlene May 18, 2012 11:33 am

    @Dona - actually, look again. I'm not using ANY lights on the black and white images, it's all 100% window or natural light. I may have used a reflector to fill in the shadows a bit but I don't think I did. The room we were in is all white walls and it filled in by itself. So I'm not sure what 3 lights you're seeing cause there wasn't any used in this case. My article isn't about lights and I find people new to portraiture find studio lights confusing for this reason. That's why I recommend learning using natural light first.

    I'm also not sure what you mean by the "all the photos are greyish" - yes they are certainly grey, but they are black and white. I did them that way to simplify and have the lighting pattern be more obvious than perhaps it would be in a colour image. I think there is plenty of contrast in these images to see the lighting patterns. At least I think the other 29+ or so commenters have found so, yes. I'm sorry if you found it hard to follow - did anyone else have this experience as well?

  • Shariq May 18, 2012 10:21 am

    Excellent and concise article, with great pictures and illustrations. No doubt many people will find this extremely handy!

  • dona May 18, 2012 09:49 am

    It would be nice post if the photos would really show the differences. I can see maybe 3 different lights, when I really look at them loong time. As a photographer with experienced in studio, I would suggest next time to use some contrast, as when you use contrast light it should be shown on the photo, not like above, where all the photos are greyish...

  • Darlene May 18, 2012 09:37 am

    @Beverly - I'm not sure I understand your questions. Where to focus in a group - that depends on the size of the group. Ideally you want to focus on someone's eyes. If you have three rows of people you'd think you want to focus on the middle row but if you use the hyper focal distance (1/3 of sharpness is in front where you focus, 2/3s is behind) you want to focus a bit forward of middle. Does that help? You also need to make sure you use a small enough aperture for groups to get everyone in the group in focus. Generally f8 or smaller.

    As for how to meter, I use a hand held incident light meter but you can use your camera meter too. Like anything in digital - do a shot, review it on the camera and look at the histogram. If it's within range and you aren't over or under exposing it you're good. This article isn't really designed to discuss these things though these are full articles on their own.

  • Anna May 18, 2012 09:19 am

    Thank you so much! I've started to hear these terms mentioned by judges at my photo club but haven't quite understood - seeing example photos and simple diagrams makes it so much clearer! I need to reread and have a try to really "get it" - but just wanted to say thanks for such a great piece!

  • Stephany May 18, 2012 09:10 am

    Thanks for an excellent article! The descriptions of the different lighting patterns, along with example photos and diagrams are very helpful!

  • Darlene May 18, 2012 08:38 am

    @Piero - thanks so much, I'm really glad it put some of the puzzle together for you.

  • David Green May 18, 2012 07:44 am

    That was such a wonder article! So educational!

  • Darlene May 18, 2012 06:54 am

    @Scott - correct, but you're actually saying the same thing I am. It has to do with the relationship to the light and position of the face. So in Short of any kind you are viewing the shadow or dark side, as you say, of the face. In order to achieve that the subject's face my be turned towards the light. Does this make sense?

  • Piero J. May 18, 2012 06:44 am

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I have three books on portrait lighting that, taken together, don't begin to explain the subject as well as you did in one entry.

    Your examples and illustrations were spot on.

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  • Jmoke May 18, 2012 06:36 am

    Great article, immediately practical and easy to follow. I didn't appreciate how much consideration goes into portrait photography as it's not something I've done a lot. This 'guide' has therefore given me an immediate appreciation of what I'd need (and like) to consider in the future. Please write the follow-ups!

  • scott detweiler May 18, 2012 06:15 am

    Actually I need to correct you here. Short & Broad are based on the position of the photographer and can be any of the 4 lighting styles. So, a Short Split would be viewed from the dark side, where Broad Split would be from the light site.

  • Jon Searle May 18, 2012 06:13 am

    Thank you, this is really well written & helpful.

  • Beverly Edgmon May 18, 2012 05:31 am

    Wonderful explanation! Would love more such as who do you focus on in a group and what metering do you use? Thanks!!

  • Neil Koven May 18, 2012 05:22 am

    An excellent article, Darlene. It is well-written and the examples perfectly show what you are describing.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 18, 2012 05:16 am

    I used some simple lighting to get this shot - large softbox 45 degrees left


  • Darlene May 18, 2012 04:11 am

    Thanks for the comments everyone, glad you enjoyed the article. I've got a couple more in the works. ;-)

    @Jason sorry that wasn't clear, the diagram is showing how to make the light that is actually on the Rembrandt painting. You can do Rembrandt pattern both as short or broad lighting so the painting is broad, the example of the woman is short. Does that clarify it?

    @Steve all my examples were done with available light outdoors or windowlight. I teach an available light class and I find for someone that's never done portrait lighting of any kind before it's much easier to start by using available light because you can see it. When you start working with speedlights or even studio lights you can't see the affect until after you take an image. If you are using speedlights you can use Pocket Wizards to use them as TTL and still get good lighting ratios (hint that may be an upcoming article).

    Cheers everyone, thanks again

  • Steve Andrade May 18, 2012 03:42 am

    Great instructions. I've tried all of these with speedlights and different modifiers. You do need to know your camera and manual setting to achieve good results. Also the distance of whatever light source and modifier used will affect your shadows and light fall off considerably.

  • George Maciver May 18, 2012 03:38 am

    Thanks for a great article, that's both informative and very well written.

  • Geoff_K May 18, 2012 03:33 am

    Thank you for the helpful refresher for we still working on portrait photography.

  • drandy May 18, 2012 03:21 am

    Great article. Will use it for reference until I have these down. Thanks for the great info in a quick article.

  • Jordan May 18, 2012 03:13 am

    Helpful article for the aspiring portrait/studio photographer. Thanks for the tips!

  • Alexx May 18, 2012 03:12 am

    Very cool. Love the rembrandt lighting. Thanks!


  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer May 18, 2012 02:51 am

    Very good tutorial and I really appreciated the lighting diagrams from sylights.com which I will start using myself!

    Rembrandt lighting is probably my favorite style, which I used for this business headshot:


    I have a question though Darlene, in your Rembrandt diagram you have the subject looking away from the light source, but in the direction your portrait example is looking the woman is well lit on the side of her face that should be looking away from the light source, but that is the side that is lit. Could you please clarify. Thank you.

  • raghavendra May 18, 2012 02:23 am

    This is the first time hearing about Rembrandt Lighting.
    thanks for the information :)


  • eduoliveros May 18, 2012 02:08 am

    Awesome article!!
    I'm trying to use those type of portrait lighting on my personal project about self-portrait (52 self-portrait for 52 weeks on 2012).
    You can check it into my website:


  • Michael Cosky May 18, 2012 01:49 am

    Thanks. Very well done and concise. The references about face shapes vs. lighting patterns is especially helpful. Look forward to more from you.

  • Jaime Goloyugo May 18, 2012 01:38 am

    Inspirational. This article will make me a better photographer. Great job and thanks in sharing your photographic expertise.

  • Jai Catalano May 18, 2012 01:27 am

    Very well written and concise. I loved it.

  • RicardoC May 18, 2012 01:23 am

    Congratulations on this post... one of the best and easiest explanations around lighting patterns I have seen.