Facebook Pixel Using Popular Television to Boost Your Knowledge of Classic Lighting

Using Popular Television to Boost Your Knowledge of Classic Lighting

A Guest post by Luke Townsend.

Rembrant Collage.jpg

With the ever growing presence of online photo sharing sites like flickr and facebook, amateurs and professionals alike are bombarded with millions of images every day to observe and study.  Photographic masters such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh, and Steven Meisel have, for years, been creating iconic images that photographers of all levels have used to study and compare lighting techniques.  It does make sense for a photographer to study photographs to help heighten their knowledge however, taking a more cinematic approach can prove to be not only beneficial but well, relaxing at the same time.  

It’s time to put down the photographs, grab a snack, the remote, and snuggle up in front of the television.  What do I mean?  The entertainment of keeping your eyes glued to the tube for hours on end can often times keep you distracted from noticing the basic lighting patterns that you’re so quick to notice when you pick up a picture, in fact when you start to notice the the different methods used you just might forget to pay attention to the plot.  Make sure you ask for a TiVo for Christmas if you catch my drift.

What to Look For

Classic lighting patterns that photographers of all experience should know have trickled down through world of ancient art, since the days of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci.  As we move through the popular TV shows House M.D., Mad Men, and an a blast from the past, Cheers, keep on the look out for the four classic lighting styles:  Short Light, Broad Light, Split Light, and Rembrandt Light.  

Short Light

Short light is when the main light illuminates the side of the face that is turned away from the camera.  In other words the side of the face that is closest to the camera (the broad side) is mostly in shadow and the nose is pointed towards the light.  This tends to be the most popular as it creates drama in a scene by emphasizing the contours of the face but also helps to thin out the face which is most flattering to subjects, especially in women.  

Short 13.jpg

In House M.D., you can see from these cell phone snaps, that doctor 13 (above) is filmed in short light quite often.  Notice how the part of her face that is closest to camera (the broad side) has less light hitting it, resulting in mostly shadow.  Also notice how it creates a thin appearance to her facial structure.  

Short House.jpg

The same applies to doctor Wilson (above) on the left as well as the example of doctor House and Wilson together outside.  Short light was used here to create the drama associated with the night time environment.  Take it a step further and you can see the addition of a separation light, common to studio lighting to give dimension to the subjects, separating them from the background.

S:R 7.jpg

In this dark, dramatic scene of the popular show Mad Men you can see creative director Don Draper (above) short lit as he sits in a dark corner of a restaurant where the presence of a single candle was used as a guide to where the light will shine.


Time warp back to 1986 and you can catch Cheers waitress Diane Chambers (above) being short lit at a restaurant where she ruins a nice weekend for bar owner Sam Malone.  Notice again the broad side of the face is mostly in shadow with a small patch of light.

Short Cheers.jpg

Jump forward a few seasons and you will see the new Cheers manager Rebecca Howe short lit.  In both examples you can also clearly recognize the appearance of separation lights outlining the actors figures.

Broad Light

Broad light is the exact opposite of short light where the main light illuminates the side of the face turned closest to the camera, hence the name broad.  Here the nose shadow is cast onto the short side and the nose is pointed opposite the direction of the main light.  You tend to see this light a lot in the fashion industry and is becoming more popular in the heavily cinematic shows.  It tends to add weight to the subject and allows you to see more of the face, which traditionally on a woman is considered to be less flattering.  

Broad House.jpg

You can see in these examples above of House M.D. where doctors Taub and Wilson are both board lit.  Notice how their noses are pointed away from the direction of the light where the most illuminated side of the face is closest to the camera.  As before notice the addition of the separation light opposite the main light helping to define the subject.

Broad MM Ch.jpg

In some instances you can associate this light as a “power” light, dominating the subject as is the case with Mad Mens Don Draper (above, right)  in the beginning of this scene and Cheers’ Sam Malone (above, left) as he awakes from a horrible nightmare.

Split Light

Split light is pretty self explanatory.  In short and broad lighting there is a visible patch of light on the shadow side of the face however, when the patch disappears and only half of the face is lit this is, as it’s name suggests, split light.  Split light is very dramatic and not used  often in portraiture however it has become more popular in film and television.  Some refer to it as the comic book villain light.

Split House.jpg

In House M.D., doctor House (above) is very often lit in this method due to his dramatic, vulgar attitude associated with his consistent lying and manipulative trickery.  Sounds like a comic book villain to me!

S 3.jpg

Mad Men’s Roger Sterling (above) is often seen in split light as well during these intense scenes due to the high stress job of being a partner at the SCDP Ad Agency.  The large foreboding shadows set the mood for the viewer.

Rembrandt Light

Rembrandt light, traditionally, is short light where the nose shadow connects with the cheek shadow creating a small triangle patch of light on the shadow side of the face.  Made famous by master Dutch painter himself, Rembrandt, you can see this effect in not only short but broad light as well.  Keep in mind that Rembrandt light can be both short and broad light but not all short and broad light is Rembrandt light.  HUH?  It’s simple.  If the nose shadow does NOT connect with the cheek shadow it’s NOT Rembrandt light.  Another classic rule to this technique is that the triangle patch of light should be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye.  You can see in the example below all the images in this post that are also of Rembrandt light.  

Rembrant Collage.jpg

In Conclusion

Now that you’ve become more familiar with the four classic lighting techniques and how they’re used in every day popular television and not just photography, next time you plop yourself on the couch to watch your favorite show see if you can spot the different styles.  Keep a close eye on how they’re used in accordance to the environment and mood of the scene.  You might be surprised how often these common techniques show up, and with a little practice how easy they become to spot.  A super quick, fun, and affordable way to train your eye in lighting from the comfort of your own couch.

See more of Luke’s work at his website or Facebook page.

Read more from our category

Guest Editor
Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to dPS.
Please see their details in the post above.

Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.

I need help with...

Some Older Comments