PhotographyTips.com - the #1 guide to better conventional and digital photography Become a Member iPhone Posing GuideGuide to Posing the Female Model BookGuide to Posing the Model CD
Search
Login

Member Login

Find us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Find us on Flickr
Connect with us on LinkedIn

SPONSORS

Sell Photos Online

FEATURED SITES


Types of studio portrait lighting

Based on illumination from the main light


Butterfly lighting casts a butterfly-shaped shadow beneath the subject's nose.
Butterfly lighting casts a butterfly-shaped shadow beneath the subject's nose.

The positioning of the main (or key) light in studio portrait photography in relation to the subject's face and in relation to the camera has been classified into a number of distinct types. These types have descriptive names. You will often hear portrait photographers talk about "Rembrandt lighting" or "butterfly lighting," and wonder what they are referring to.

The first of these different lighting descriptions (or "lightings") depends on the precise position of the main light that illuminates the face of the subject. Their names refer to the effect the light has on the subject's highlight and shadow areas. The second of these lighting names refers to the direction of the light and the camera position in relation to the light.

THE FIRST TYPES - those that are independent of camera position

Butterfly lighting - The main light is placed fairly high, directly in front of the face - the light is aimed at the center of the nose - and casts a shadow directly beneath the subject's nose, but no shadows on either side of the nose. The shadow pattern beneath the nose looks like a butterfly. When not too contrasty, this is considered by many photographers to be basic lighting for the glamour look.


Split lighting - The main light is placed so that it completely illuminates one side of the face while leaving the other side in shadow. It's a true split - half light, half-dark.

Split lighting is very useful in concealing blemishes on the shadow side, or to make a wide nose look narrower. It is also a dramatic form of lighting that may suit a particular type of portrait, regardless of whether there are facial flaws to conceal.

(Please note: The model at right is illuminated using only the main light. Her face is too dark on the shadow side for a decent portrait. It needs illumination from a reflector or a secondary light source. This image and the others on this page, however, have the subject illuminated only by a single main light so that you can clearly see the effect of the lighting types described here.)

Split lighting illuminates one side of the face while the other side is in shadow.
Split lighting illuminates one side of the face while the other side is in shadow.

Broad lighting occurs when the light source is placed near the camera, regardless of which way the model is facing.
Broad lighting occurs when the light source is placed near the camera, regardless of which way the model is facing.

THE SECOND TYPES - those that are dependent on camera positions relative to the light

Broad lighting - Broad lighting occurs when the main light illuminates the side of the subject's face that is turned toward the camera. Broad lighting is not all that specific. If the light source is positioned near the camera, that is broad lighting. It may cast some noticeable shadow or none, dependent on how close to the camera the light is. It simply refers to more light on the camera side than the non-camera side of the subject's face.

The less shadow present, the flatter the light is, showing less three-dimensionality. If your subject has a narrow face that needs the illusion of widening, this is the lighting for him or her.


Short lighting - Also called "narrow lighting," short lighting is arrived at when the main light completely illuminates only the side of the subject's face that is turned away from the camera. The near side is in shadow. But, like broad lighting, the amount of shadow is not specific. Short lighting simply means there is more light on the far side than on the camera side of the face. The amount of shadow on the camera side may be a little or a lot.

If the camera side is totally in shadow, then it is no longer short lighting; it is split lighting. Short lighting is widely-used for its dramatic look in portraits, since it shows facial contour much better than broad lighting. It is very effective in making a round face look narrower.

Short lighting is the most popular for portraits. The camera side of the face is in shadow.
Short lighting is the most popular for portraits. The camera side of the face is in shadow.

Rim lighting places a rim of light around the subject. The main light is placed behind the model.
Rim lighting places a rim of light around the subject. The main light is placed behind the model.

Rim lighting - This is perhaps the most-easily understood type of studio portrait lighting, and the hardest to properly photograph. The main light is placed behind the subject (known as "backlighting") so that the face is completely in shadow, but there is a rim of light around the subject's head, like the corona in a full eclipse.

This effect is ultra-dramatic when properly captured. It is very effective in shooting profiles, and may look more Rembrandt-like than the Rembrandt type of lighting (below) when correctly-exposed using the right amount of fill light on the shadow side.

COMBINING THE TWO TYPES

Rembrandt lighting - Many of the subjects of Rembrandt's paintings seemed to glow with an internal light, especially on their shadow sides.

In the photography studio, Rembrandt lighting combines a variation of butterfly lighting with short lighting.

Instead of the light being aimed so that there is no shadow on either side of the nose as in pure butterfly lighting, the light is moved around the subject's face towards the off-camera side - the part of the face that is turned away from the camera - creating a partial shadow on the camera side of the face. We say a "partial" shadow because there must be a triangle of light on the upper cheek of the shadow side for this lighting type to be worthy of the name "Rembrandt." The off-camera side of the face is fully-illuminated.

In the example photograph on the left, the subject is facing the camera. Normally the subject is not directly facing the camera when Rembrandt lighting is used, however our model is so that you can more clearly see the effect of this lighting type.

LIGHTING BY A MASTER PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHER

The late Yousuf Karsh was a master of studio lighting and the top portrait photographer of his time. His subjects were often extremely well-known people, incuding Nikita Kruschev, Albert Einstein, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Winston Churchill, to name only a few.

He employed a variety of lighting techniques, including split lighting, as illustrated in this fine example below, a portrait made by Karsh of François Mauriac, provided courtesy of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh. To view more of his superb images and read the stories behind them, we invite you to visit www.karsh.org.

Normally, Karsh carefully planned the lighting set-up for his superb portraits, knowing precisely where to place his lights for the best effect. But, in this particular portrait of Mauriac, the electrical power was unexpectedly off, and he was unable to use his studio lighting equipment. He knew he would not soon have the opportunity to meet again with Mauriac. So, he improvised, and was able to achieve a quality portrait that was every inch as good as those he produced using his studio lighting equipment. Read about what he did, in his own words, below.


Of his portrait session with Mauriac, Yousuf Karsh said:

"Paris was without electric power when I photographed the eminent Catholic writer. My assistant and I had valiantly climbed five endless Parisian flights of stairs with heavy equipment, in the vain hope that electricity would soon be restored. It was late in the afternoon and we would not soon have the opportunity to meet again. So, using a bed sheet borrowed from his housekeeper as a reflector, I caught his aristocratic silhouette in the available light of an open French window."

There is a valuable lesson here, of course. You could find yourself facing a similar problem. Your studio lights might fail. Or, you may be asked to take a portrait when you don't have your equipment available and there won't be another opportunity. Don't think it can't happen, either. Problems do arise, usually when you least expect them. The true professional rises to the occasion and manages to pull off a minor miracle, as Karsh did using his confidence, experience and knowledge of lighting.

Confidence, experience and lighting expertise all go together. The more you experiment with lighting your subjects, both inside and outside the studio, the quicker you will begin to master techniques and develop alternatives to traditional lighting solutions.

Click on the links below for more information about lighting your portrait subjects.

Portrait of François Mauriac, 1949 - © The Estate of Yousuf Karsh. All Rights Reserved.
Portrait of François Mauriac, 1949 - © The Estate of Yousuf Karsh. All Rights Reserved.
Further information...

More portrait lighting

Portrait lighting errors

Painting with light