Understanding Broad and Short Lighting in Photography

Understanding Broad and Short Lighting in Photography

There are a lot of lighting patterns for you to use in your portrait photography. Some of these are covered quite well. Rembrandt and butterfly lighting are two that are both easy to set up and yield great results a lot of the time. Of course, you can use just one lighting pattern all of the time and build a fantastic portfolio; however, if you want to have a full skillset with a variety of techniques to use in your portraits at any time, you will want to learn and understand as many of these lighting patterns as possible.

Broad and short lighting are often clumped together because of the similarities in how they are implemented and described, but they couldn’t be more different in how they affect your images.

This article will introduce you to the broad and short lighting patterns and explain when and why you might want to use them and what you can expect to achieve while using them. These are two very easy lighting patterns that can seem confusing at first, but once you get your head around them, they give you powerful tools to help shape the light and your subjects in your photos.

What is a lighting pattern?

First, let’s start with the very basics. A lighting pattern is any named lighting setup that gives you specific results. There is a fair list of these established lighting patterns for you to learn outside of the broad and short patterns discussed here. These include Rembrandt, Butterfly, split, cross, clamshell and more. Learning and understanding these lighting patterns can act as a shortcut to helping you get great results in your portraits. These lighting patterns apply to both natural light and artificial light, so it does not matter which you prefer.

Broad and short

The names of the broad and short lighting patterns refer to which side of the subject’s face is being lit first.

Sometimes, understanding what broad and short mean in terms of lighting can be confusing. To make it as simple as possible, imagine a face turned slightly away from you. That face now has two sides divided by the nose. The side of the face that is closest to you is the broad side because you see more of it than the other. The other side, the one that’s furthest from you, is the short side.

With broad lighting, your light is going to hit the broad side (or the side that’s closest to you) of the face first.

With short lighting, your light is going to hit the short side (or the side that’s furthest from you) of the face first.

Broad lighting

Broad lighting can be used to great effect to help widen faces or give you more contrast than some other lighting patterns.

When you choose to light the broad side of the face, it has several effects on your image. These include:

  • Broad lighting widens the face.
  • Broad lighting usually throws the short side of the face in shadow (dependent on light placement).
  • Broad lighting provides more contrast than some lighting patterns like butterfly lighting.

When you want to use it

Because broad lighting tends to broaden (go figure) the face, you’ll want to use broad lighting when you’re photographing subjects with a narrow face. Using it on subjects with a wider face can exaggerate that shape and you’ll want to avoid it there.

If there’s a feature on one side of your subjects face that you want to take the emphasis away from, you can pose your subject so that feature is on the short side of their face and use broad lighting to ensure that it’s in shadow, taking the emphasis away.

How to set it up

Setting up for broad lighting couldn’t be easier. Just have your subject turn away from the key light until you have the desired effect.

While there is no one way to set up broad lighting, here is a basic method to get you started.

As in the diagram above, place your light forty-five degrees from your subject. Ensure that you have your subject’s face posed away from the light source.

It really is as easy as that. Just remember that you can control the transition from highlight to shadow by changing the distance of the light from your subject and by using different modifiers.

Next steps

Adding fill to your broad lighting can help with extreme contrast while still retaining shadows for depth.

Lighting patterns are a starting point. This isn’t a zero-sum game. To take your broad lighting setups further, feel free to experiment with fill light. You can use reflectors or a second light to lift up the shadows and reduce the contrast in your images for more flattering portraits. Conversely, you can also choose to emphasize the shadows and the contrast for darker, bolder portraits. The best advice here is to know what result you are after before you start.

With a reflector as fill, you can now control the overall contrast in the image.

Short Lighting

Short lighting (depending on variables like your modifiers) tends to lend itself to dark, shadow-heavy imagery. This makes it the perfect lighting pattern when creating low-key images.

When you choose to light the short side of the face first, it also has several effects on your portraits:

  • Short lighting narrows the face.
  • Short lighting will throw the broad side of the face in shadow.
  • Short lighting provides heavy contrast and is ideal for low-key images. It is also useful when you are trying to create images with a lot of depth.
  • Short lighting can be used to hide imperfections.

How to set it up

Again, there is no one way to go about a short lighting setup.

Short lighting is trickier to set up than broad, but take your time and be deliberate in where the light is hitting your subject.

For this example, start with your light source forty-five degrees to your subject just like you did for the broad lighting setup. This time, have your subject face towards the light. If you have a modeling light, or you’re using natural light, watch the highlights on your subjects face carefully. Either move the light or your subject until the brightest part of your subject’s face is the short side.

Tip: If you’re having trouble seeing the contrast with your eyes, you can squint. I can’t even begin to tell you why this works, but it does. Squinting makes it far easier to see the contrast in a scene with your eyes.

That’s it. While short lighting is slightly trickier than broad lighting, it is still easy to accomplish. Once you have it figured out, it will become second nature.

Next steps

Because short lighting tends to be heavy on the shadows, you can use as much fill as you want to control them. Use a reflector for a gentle lift, or a second light to bring them close to the other tones in your images.

Since short lighting is so shadow-centric, you will almost certainly want to use fill light to control the contrast in normal situations. You can use a reflector, but if your shadows are quite deep, you may want to opt for fill light. Try exposing your fill light three stops less than your key (your main light) to retain your shadows while ensuring that all of the details are still there.

Using a reflector lifts the shadows in this example, but retains enough contrast for depth.

End matter

There you have it; two basic, but powerful lighting patterns that you can use to create bold dynamic portraits. I encourage you to go out and practice with each of these set-ups. Experiment liberally with your distances between your light and subject and try as many different fill lighting techniques that you can come up with. Once you have the basics down; if you want a real challenge: use the short lighting pattern to create a high key image.

 

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John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.