portrait photography lighting

Portrait Photography Lighting Techniques You Should Master

Lighting in portrait photography can have a significant impact on the overall look of your photos. Professional portrait photographers employ various lighting techniques to bring out the best in their subjects. Portrait photography lighting not only produces stunning images, but also helps photographers tell a story worth a thousand words.

In this article, experts at Stellar Studios explain the significance of lighting in portrait photography and teach you how to apply these concepts to your own projects.

Why is Portrait Photography Lighting Important?

Lighting is essential in any kind of photography. Even if your subject is mundane, the proper lighting can add mood and make it more interesting.

In portrait photography, lighting determines the contrast of the image, as well as the mood of the portrait. Proper light manipulation is essential if you want your subjects to have the best possible texture, vibrance, and luminosity. With the appropriate use of shadow and highlight, your photographs can get a more artistic and professional look.

Types of Lighting in Portrait Photography


Here are some portrait photography lighting ideas to consider for your shoots:

1. Broad Lighting

Broad lighting is a technique where the brightened side of the face faces the camera. Typically used for high-key portraiture, this portrait lighting method brings out the best in subjects’ features. Broad lighting is excellent for highlighting cheekbones or broadening a slender face as it effectively brightens the exposed side of the face.

Portrait Photography Broad Lighting Setup

This lighting setup depends on the direction your subject is facing. To generate broad portrait photography lighting, determine which side of the face will face the camera. If your subject looks left into the camera, the left side will be the broad side of the face. Then, place the light next to the camera to illuminate the subject’s face.

2. Short Lighting

Short lighting refers to any type of portrait photography lighting setup (split, loop, or Rembrandt) in which the darker side of the face is tilted more toward the camera. This lighting is ideal for low-key portraits since it casts shadows across most of the subject’s face. In addition, most faces look good under short lighting because it makes them appear thinner.

Portrait Photography Lighting Setup for Short Lighting

To maximize this lighting setup, have your subject bend their head slightly toward the light source. Place the lights on the opposite side of the camera. This will cause shadows to form on the side of the face closer to the camera.

3. Split Lighting

Split lighting visually divides the face by highlighting one side while shading the other. This portrait photography lighting setup creates a dramatic and mysterious look. Because the half-shadow effect is so striking, it’s often used to take sultry portraits of musicians and artists.

Lighting Setup for Split Portrait Photography

Placing the light source at an angle of 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject creates split lighting. For more contrast, make the light source brighter or move it closer to your subject. If you want less contrast, dim the light source, move it away from your subject, or use a reflector to fill in the shadows.

4. Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is one of the quickest and most common portrait lighting techniques. This portrait lighting softly defines facial features with cheek shadows opposite the light source. It also creates a circular shadow just under the subject’s nose. Loop lighting is easy to master, so most portrait photographers recommend it for beginners. It also enhances the subject’s features, allowing for stunning photographs to be captured.

Portrait Photography for Loop Lighting Setup

To achieve a loop lighting setup, place a soft light source at an angle of 30-45 degrees, slightly above the eye level of the subject. Angle the light down so it can cast a shadow across the model. Shadows will look different depending on the light’s angle and height, so experiment until you get the desired effect. If you want to soften the shadows, put a reflector or fill light on the opposite side of your subject.

5. Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is a style often associated with the Dutch master painter Rembrandt. The painter’s signature portrait lighting style is similar to loop lighting. The main difference is that it’s a stronger angle than loop lighting, creating a more dramatic effect. It also casts a triangle of light on one cheek where the nose and cheekbone shadows meet. Because Rembrandt lighting has a distinct dramatic effect, it’s best suited for moody portraits.

Portrait Photography Lighting Setup for Rembrandt Lighting

The lighting should be about 30 degrees away from the subject. Place the light slightly above the subject’s head and angle it slightly downward. If you want to highlight your subject’s eyes, tweak the light’s position so that it falls at just the right height and angle for their face.

For softer shadow edges, use a scrim, softbox, umbrella, or sheer curtain to spread out the light source. Try adding a grid to your modifier to make the shadow edges stronger. If you want to fill in shadow details, place a reflector or a second dimmer light on the opposite side of your subject.

6. Butterfly and Clamshell Lighting

Butterfly lighting is recognized for the distinctive shape of the shadow the lighting casts under the nose, chin, and cheekbones. It subtly molds the face with a radiant light across the illuminated area. This is why butterfly lighting is frequently used in glamor and beauty portrait photoshoot ideas. It’s also great for slim and mature faces as it minimizes the appearance of wrinkles.

A popular variation of this setup is the clamshell lighting. The clamshell lighting uses two light sources that resemble an open clamshell when set up. It is a softer variation of the butterfly lighting and is often used for more subtle shoots.

Portrait Photography Butterfly Lighting Setup

A butterfly lighting setup can be challenging when working with natural light sources such as a window or a reflector alone. For the sharper shadow under the nose to appear, you’ll usually need a harsh light source like the sun or a flash.

To achieve this portrait photography effect, use a strobe light (fitted with a softbox or beauty dish) or a huge LED ring light positioned directly above and slightly behind the camera.  Place the lights high enough so that the subject’s eyes will catch the light. Simply shifting the light’s position away from or toward the subject will increase or decrease the contrast accordingly.

To do clamshell lighting, add a second light to the existing setup. Place the main light above and in front of the subject, then angle the light down. Then, add a reflector or fill light in front of and below the subject and point it up.

7. Rim Lighting or Back Lighting

Illuminating a subject from behind is known as backlighting, rim lighting, hair lighting, or edge lighting. When used correctly, this type of lighting creates a bright highlight or “rim light” for portrait photography that defines your subject.

Portrait Photography Lighting Setup for Rim Lighting

Get the best possible outcome from this portrait lighting by ensuring the light source isn’t seen in the frame. Use only one light source to create a dramatic silhouette. You can adjust the exposure so that the darkest parts are black. Additionally, place a reflector or a soft second light between your subject and the camera to fill in shadows.

Portrait Lighting Photography Tips

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1. Begin with a key light

Before you experiment with multiple lights, master using one key lighting. Key lighting is critical in portrait photography as it lays the groundwork for the lighting setup. Start with one light and add more as necessary, rather than trying to visualize the entirety of your setup at once.

2. Use an off-camera flash

While the built-in flash is useful, the off-camera flash is preferable for portrait photography studio lighting. A good starting point is the 45/45 position. Simply place the off-camera flash at 45 degrees between the camera and the subject. Then, aim it down at 45 degrees above the subject’s head to get gorgeous results.

3. Try to keep the constant lighting

The camera’s built-in flash isn’t the best lighting source for portrait photography. You can get the most realistic lighting for portraits with constant light sources, like the sun or indoor lighting. Consistent lighting is much easier to work with because you can see the results instantly.

4. When in doubt, hire a professional.

There’s nothing wrong with taking your own portraits and experimenting with lighting. However, if you feel you can’t achieve your ideas, asking for help is okay. After all, that’s what Stellar Studios is all about.

At Stellar Studios, we do cutting-edge professional portrait photography for large businesses, celebrities, artists, and ordinary individuals. As a portrait photography company, we aim to capture our subjects’ unique beauty, charm, and character in every photograph. We have everything from portrait photography lighting to editing software to help you create beautiful and meaningful pictures.

Experiment with Different Portrait Lighting Ideas at Stellar Studios

Portrait photography lighting is an enjoyable skill to master. You can do a lot to realize your vision using only the lights and your subject. The good news about learning portrait lighting is that you can create any portrait lighting idea with minimal effort and equipment. You just need to practice until you’ve mastered everything.

Of course, if you don’t have the time to learn, professional studios are available to assist you. Stellar Studios will take care of everything for you, whether you’re setting up a business identity, making a modeling portfolio, or starting brand campaigns.

Have ideas in mind? Contact us today for more information and a free quote.

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