Mastering lighting patterns is essential for portrait photographers. This mastery empowers them to effectively shape the mood with light and portray their subjects as intended. Portrait photographers can use these patterns to highlight specific features to create flattering or dramatic images, each one a story in its own right. Following, we’ll share five common portrait lighting patterns and consider how they can be used to create compelling portraits.

Video: 5 Go-To Portrait Lighting Patterns for Photographers

Gear Checklist

Before diving into the portrait lighting patterns, let’s take a quick look at the gear used in this tutorial:

By all means, feel free to substitute any equipment listed above with what you have on hand to achieve the portrait lighting patterns covered in this guide.

Portrait Lighting Patterns

Here are the five lighting patterns we’ll be covering:

  1. Flat Lighting
  2. Butterfly/Paramount Lighting
  3. Loop Lighting
  4. Rembrandt Lighting
  5. Split Lighting

1. Flat Lighting

The first lighting pattern, flat light, achieved by positioning the light source at the same angle as the lens, may seem bland to some photographers.

flat lighting example for portrait lighting patterns
Flat Lighting | Camera Settings: 1/200, f/4, ISO 100 | Flash Power = ⅛

However, its ability to eliminate harsh shadows and minimize imperfections on the subject’s face makes it incredibly flattering, particularly in fashion and beauty photography.

2. Butterfly/Paramount Lighting

Similar to flat lighting, butterfly lighting involves positioning the light source close to the camera and slightly above the subject.

butterfly lighting example for portrait lighting patterns
Butterfly Lighting | Camera Settings: 1/200, f/4, ISO 100 | Flash Power = ⅛

Named for the shadow it casts under the nose resembling a butterfly, this pattern is renowned for its flattering and slightly directional lighting.

Here’s a quick comparison between flat and butterfly lighting.

comparison for flat vs butterfly portrait lighting patterns

Some photographers also refer to this pattern as Paramount lighting because Paramount Studios used it almost exclusively for celebrity headshots in the 20th century.

Portrait Lighting Patterns, #3. Loop Lighting

With loop lighting, the light source is angled at approximately 45 degrees relative to the camera and subject.

Loop Lighting | Camera Settings: 1/200, f/4, ISO 100 | Flash Power = ⅛

This pattern introduces more shape and depth to both the face and body, adding a touch of drama to the portrait.

comparison for butterfly vs loop portrait lighting patterns

You can really see the difference when we compare this pattern with the previous pattern side-by-side. Loop lighting moves far enough away from the center to create a shadow on both the side of the face as well as the side of the body.

4. Rembrandt Lighting

The Rembrandt lighting pattern, inspired by the Dutch painter, creates a triangle of light on the cheek opposite the light source.

rembrandt example for portrait lighting patterns
Rembrandt Lighting | Camera Settings: 1/200, f/4, ISO 100 | Flash Power = ⅛

To achieve this lighting pattern, move the light a little bit further and deeper into your scene so that the light sits at just over a 45-degree angle relative to the camera and subject.

comparison for rembrandt vs loop portrait lighting patterns

The Rembrandt lighting pattern offers a more dramatic effect compared to loop lighting, accentuating the subject’s features and adding depth to the scene.

rembrandt examples side-by-side for portrait lighting patterns

This pattern offers an exceptional amount of shadow and shape on the body to draw out the subject’s features.

5. Split Lighting

We’ll look at split lighting for our fifth entry into the list of go-to portrait lighting patterns. Split lighting happens when we place the light directly to the side of the subject, resulting in a dramatic split between light and shadow.

Split Lighting | Camera Settings: 1/200, f/4, ISO 100 | Flash Power = ⅛

While not commonly used in wedding photography due to its intensity, split lighting can be incredibly impactful for editorial portraits.

Portrait Lighting Patterns: Short Vs. Broad Lighting

short lighting and broad lighting examples for portrait lighting patterns

In addition to the portrait lighting patterns listed above, understanding short and broad lighting techniques is essential. Short lighting, which illuminates the side of the face farthest from the camera, can make subjects appear leaner. Conversely, broad lighting, which lights the side closest to the camera, can widen the face. Portrait photographers typically opt for short lighting because it makes subjects look leaner.

One More Thing About Light Direction When Using Portrait Lighting Patterns

high angle and low angle examples for portrait lighting patterns

Keep in mind, when using the portrait lighting patterns above, the light source should sit about one foot higher than the subject. Also, angle the light slightly downward to replicate the natural direction of light that we’re used to seeing. Naturally, you can always make adjustments to accommodate specific stylistic preferences.

Portrait Lighting Patterns | Conclusion

Mastering these lighting patterns and techniques equips photographers with the skills to create captivating portraits. Such portraits will evoke emotion, tell stories, and showcase their artistic vision. By considering the mood and purpose of each shot, photographers can confidently use these lighting patterns to bring their creative concepts to life.

Finally, for more tips and insight into lighting portraits, download the completely free lighting guide that SLR Lounge created in partnership with MagMod.