studio portrait photography setup

Studio Portrait Photography Cheat Sheet: Single Light Setups

As a photographer, you should be well aware of the impact lighting has on your photos. How you set up the lights around your subject determines how good or bad your photo is going to turn out. The fact is no matter how attractive your model may be, poor lighting will make them look unappealing. This is why it’s vital to know the correct lighting techniques when doing studio portrait photography.

Positioning your lights as well as the model to get the desired shot requires a lot of patience and practice. The best way to do it is to go about it slowly– just one at a time. It’s best to move either your source of light or your model only, then take a test shot. Moving both during the same shot might confuse you so it’s a good habit to move at a slow pace, especially when you are just starting out.

There are many ways you can learn lighting patterns, the easiest being in the studio and practicing on a model. There is even an online course on Classic Studio Portrait Photography which covers an in-depth study of the art of lighting and posing. To give you a brief background, listed below are some of the most common lighting setups in studio portrait photography using only one source of light.

Split (Side) Lighting

This lighting setup produces a dramatic photo that shows only one side of the subject’s face in the light while the other is hidden in a shadow. Split lighting, which is also called side lighting, is probably the easiest to achieve among all patterns. Simply place the source of light 90º to either side of the subject and adjust it according to how the light falls on the face. You can leave one side of the face completely in the dark or you can use a bounce or fill light to show just a bit detail. 

Split lighting is a more common technique when photographing dramatic or moody portraits of artists. This pattern accentuates your model’s face and texture and is considered to be more suitable for men due to their masculine features. 

Butterfly (Paramount) Lighting

This setup is called butterfly lighting due to the butterfly-shaped shadow that is created when you place the light source above and behind your camera pointed at a slightly downward angle towards the subject. The shadow can be seen beneath the nose, chin, and around the cheeks which is very flattering for a model who has defined cheekbones. You can also add intensity by positioning the light at a steeper angle or even make the shadow longer by positioning the light higher. The lighting pattern is a great choice for glamour shots, however it is not as flattering for a model with a round face.

Loop Lighting

What would be more fitting for a round face is the loop lighting setup. This is similar to the butterfly lighting, however instead of a butterfly-shaped shadow, a small loop is created on one side of the face. To achieve this, just position your source of light as you would in a butterfly lighting setup and move it a bit to the side. The nose then casts a shadow on the opposite side (the side farther away from the camera) from where the source of light is. The trick here is to avoid placing the light too high, ensuring that the shadows of the subject’s nose and cheek do not meet. This pattern is highly popular and flattering for most people.

Rembrandt Lighting

This particular pattern was named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who frequently used this in his paintings. In this lighting setup, the shadows of the model’s nose and cheek meet as opposed to loop lighting, creating a darker and more dramatic look. To achieve this effect, the source of light should be positioned above your model, who should be slightly facing away from it. Their nose should then cast a shadow on the cheek that is turned away from the camera and in the shadow. (Take note that the eye on this side of the face should still have a sparkle brought about from the reflection of the light to avoid a flat look. This is called “catchlight.”)

Rembrandt lighting flatters subjects who have distinguished cheekbones, however it is not as appealing for those who have smaller or flatter noses.

Short Lighting

This style in studio portrait photography occurs when the side of the face farther from the camera is turned towards the light and the wider side of the face that is closer to the camera is in the shadow. This creates darker and more sculpted portraits, which is flattering for most people.

Broad Lighting

Opposite of short lighting, broad lighting is when the side of the face closer to the camera is in the light and the other side, farther from the camera, is in the shadow. This technique is used more often on subjects with slimmer faces. It is not suitable for those who have round or big faces as it will only magnify it. 

Short and broad lighting are more of styles rather than lighting patterns. The split, butterfly, loop, and Rembrandt lighting patterns could be short or broad depending on how you set up your model and source of light. 

Now that you have a brief background on a few single light setups, you have to understand that it is up to your judgment as a photographer to decide which is the most suitable in each situation. You will have models of different face shapes and features, as well as desires, and no studio portrait session will be the same. Remember, expert photographers did not just become great in an instant– they practiced.

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