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8 Best Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Must Know

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Portrait Lighting Patterns

portrait lighting patterns

portrait lighting patterns

Best Portrait Lighting Patterns

Best Portrait Lighting Patterns

In classical portrait photography, there are several things you need to be careful about to capture the flattering portraits of your subject. It must be in harmony with all the aspects like:

  • Lighting pattern
  • Lighting ratio
  • Facial view
  • Angle of view

I’d suggest that you master the criteria behind portrait lighting patterns by heart. Once you nail it, you may start breaking the rules and start adding your personal touch.

In this article, we’ll be talking about 8 amazing portrait lighting patterns that’ll help you capture professional, captivating portraits every single time.

But first, let’s start with the basics.

What are Lighting Patterns?

A lighting pattern is determined by the direction from where the light is coming. It’s focused on how shadow and light come into play in your portraits.

What are the Examples of Common Lighting Setups?

Lighting setups or portrait lighting patterns are of majorly four types

1. Split Lighting

2. Loop Lighting

3. Butterfly Lighting

4. Rembrandt Lighting

It’s better that you know these portrait lighting patterns inside out. These are the roots to grip tight when performing portrait photography.

The things you’ll want to keep handy when practicing these lighting patterns are :

  • A tripod or light stand
  • Reflectors
  • Diffusers to soften the light effect
  • A Speedlight or video light

8 Best Portrait Lighting Patterns

1. Split Lighting

Split lighting photography is one of the most common portrait lighting patterns used by photographers. It helps achieve a dramatic effect.

The split lighting setup splits the face into exactly two parts. Here, one half is well-lit and the other half is completely dark and barely a silhouette can be seen. The second half may or may not have a catch light.

This lighting pattern enables you to capture exceptionally moody and dramatic portraits. You may ask your subject to show more serious expressions and not jolly.

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How to Achieve a Split Lighting Pattern?

Place the light at the height of your subject’s face on one end. Make sure that the light is only exposed to one side of the face where the other side is completely dark.

Since the split lighting pattern is very dramatic, you can place the light farther away, and use or not use any diffuser.

2. Loop Lighting

Loop lighting photography is focused on creating small shadows in the area of subjects’ noses touching the cheeks. Where most of the face is well-lit, you’ll want to determine a small round shadow on the respective place.

You’ll want to add shadows to one side of the face - only one corner of the nose touching cheek.

Such portrait photography techniques work best for happy portraits that exude a fun, loving, and happy environment and leave no reason to create harsh shadows.

How to Achieve a Loop Lighting Pattern?

You may create loop lighting by keeping the light source slightly above the eye level of your subjects. It may be about 30-40 degrees from the camera depending on your subject’s height.

Simply, keep it taller than the subject, but angled down. Make sure that your light is far enough to create a shadow and close enough to well-lit the complete face.

3. Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt's lighting pattern is taken from the Rembrandt painter who often made use of this lighting pattern in his paintings.

This portrait lighting pattern is determined by the triangle of light on the cheek. The shadow on the nose and cheek meets which creates a trapped triangle of light in the center.

The Rembrandt lighting pattern is more common in serious shots involving masculine subjects. You won’t use it for happy, beautiful shots.

The lighting pattern is also very less forgiving to the skin textures and wrinkles and acne are easily visible in this style.

How to Achieve a Rembrandt Lighting Pattern?

Remember what you did in the loop portrait lighting pattern. No here, you’ll need to take it to a more extreme angle.

Typically, the angle required to achieve the Rembrandt lighting pattern is 45 degrees. However, you’ll be required to move the light until the other side of the face has only a small triangle of light on the cheek right below the eye.

You may consider keeping the light source a foot or two above the eye level of the face.

Rembrandt's lighting pattern is generally a two-light setup. I’d suggest you use a reflector to achieve this style using a single light.

In case of using a reflector, place the reflector at about a 45-degree angle from your subject on the opposite side of the light. Make sure that you angle the reflector to bounce off the light from the first source.

4. Butterfly Lighting

As the name suggests, you’ll be creating a butterfly-shaped shadow that’ll be created underneath the nose and chin using the Butterfly lighting photography style.

This portrait lighting pattern is often used for taking glamour shots of models. It can also flatter your old subjects as it beautifully emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.

With adjustments in shadows, you can create simple and flattering to serious and dramatic effects.

How to Achieve a Butterfly Lighting Pattern?

It’s pretty simple to create a butterfly portrait lighting pattern. Simply place an off-camera light right at the back of the camera. But, unlike an on-camera flash, raise the light stand so the light is above your subject’s head level.

Now, angles the light down towards your subject’s face at about an angle of 45-48 degrees.

5. Clamshell lighting

Clamshell lighting is used in portrait photography where the light hits the subject from above. This lighting fills in the shadow for a uniform softer light.

You’ll want to create two catchlights and a soft shadow below the chin. The clamshell lighting photography also emphasizes the jawline and cheekbones.

This portrait lighting pattern is most common in women’s portraits and beauty shots. It helps create a slimline effect down the cheeks and jawline.

When using this lighting pattern for men, you can make the shadows harder by moving the light away.

How to Achieve a Clamshell Lighting Pattern?

For this shot again, you’ll need to set up butterfly lighting with the flash behind and above the camera, but angle it down to 45 degrees.

Place a reflector in your subject’s lap and ask them to keep it still. The reflector will bounce some light that’ll work as a fill light.

6. Rim Lighting

Rim portrait lighting pattern is more adored for the light it creates rather than the shadows. This portrait lighting pattern will help you create a streamlined rim of light on one side of your subject’s face.

Rim lighting photography throws a dramatic light that highlights your subject’s shape which makes it perfect if you’re looking to photograph athletes, capturing a profile, or exaggerating curves and showing off sculpting lines.

You’ll not want to use it for beauty shots as it doesn’t help in covering skin issues.

How to Achieve a Rim Lighting Pattern?

You’ll need to use a light that’s about 45 degrees from the subject to create a rim lighting pattern too. But with a rim portrait lighting pattern, the light will be 45 degrees behind your subject.

Do not place the light right next to the camera, instead, place the light a few steps behind the subject and to the side. You can adjust the height if required

If you’re looking to capture a dark image with just the subject’s outline, I’d say you use manual exposure to achieve that dark look.

On the contrary, if you want your subject’s face lit well, expose the light to the face and use a reflector towards the front of your subject.

7. Broad Lighting

This is a portrait lighting pattern where the part of the subject’s face that is turned towards the camera is lit most brightly.

Since it widens the face, most photographers find it less flattering as the subjects too may want to achieve a slimmer look. However, it depends on what kind of shots you take.

A broad lighting pattern is sometimes used for photographing ‘high-key portraits.

How to Achieve a Rim Lighting Pattern?

Turn your subject’s face away from the light source. Make sure that the side of the face that is towards the camera has the lightest and the other side of the face has shadows that are falling far, furthest from your camera.

8. Short Lighting

A short lighting pattern for portraits is just the opposite of a broad lighting pattern. Here, the side of the face turned towards the camera has more shadow.

Unlike broad lighting patterns, short lighting patterns create narrow effects on the subject’s face which are adored more and better.

The use of this portrait lighting pattern is common in darker or low-key portraits. As more of the face gets shadow, it adds more 3D, flattering, and sculpting effects on the face.

In a nutshell, a short lighting pattern has shadows on the largest part of the face showing.


Portrait lighting angle varies with the variation in light, angle, distance, and several other things. To master the art of portrait photography, learning these lighting patterns becomes a must.

This article helps you understand all the major portrait lighting patterns easily and understandably.

You may not be able to master all the lighting patterns at once. I’d highly recommend that you practice each portrait lighting pattern with a live human subject. When you’ll do it practically, it’ll make you more polished.

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