Essential portrait lighting techniques that every photographer should master

Portraiture requires a lot more than simply posing your model and clicking the shutter. If you want to capture dramatic portraits, learning to manipulate light is an essential skill to master.

Photo by Rhett Wesley

Here, we'll discuss several techniques involving different light sources, styles, and lighting patterns that are guaranteed to elevate the quality of your portrait photography.

01. Work with the right light source

There are a few light sources that work exceptionally well for portraiture, and each produces its own unique results.

Natural light

Photo by Thought Catalog

You don't need a studio setup to create high-quality portraits. In most photographic situations, natural light is all you really need. You can utilize natural light by shooting either outdoors or indoors by a window. 

Photo by Vince Fleming

If you're shooting outside, the best approach is to shoot late in the afternoon (especially during golden hour) when sunlight isn’t so harsh. Scouting for a location with natural shade or waiting for an overcast day are also good bets, as the diffused light in these situations casts a softer, more flattering light on your subject. If you’re shooting indoors, on the other hand, you can easily soften light by blocking off sunlight from a window with a white bedsheet.

Artificial light

Another option is to shoot using artificial lighting. This involves everything from studio strobes to continuous lighting—the benefit of which is that it ensures a consistent, even light throughout your entire shoot. 

Photo by Ethan Haddox

If consistency is what you're after, try to stick to LED panels over regular light bulbs, as this creates a more uniform exposure for your portraits. To make the most out of artificial lights, you'll also have to use modifiers such as softboxes or studio umbrellas to diffuse the harsh beam the lights produce.  

Photo by Melissa Mjoen

Of course, you can always get creative and play around with other sources like neon lights, street lamps, or even the light from a smartphone if you’re shooting in the dark.

Flash

You can also use an external flash to illuminate your model. This gives you the freedom to shoot just about anywhere at any time of day, regardless of the available light.

Photo by Joe Robles

Because it doesn’t provide a steady stream of light, however, you might need to take a few test shots before you get the results you desire. Additionally, you’ll have to attach a remote trigger to your camera and the flash unit to set it off wirelessly. It usually involves some trial and error to get things right, but once you figure it out, the results are just as interesting as those from other light sources.

02. Find a lighting style that complements your subject

Photographers typically use two main lighting styles for portraiture: broad lighting and short lighting.

You can test both styles on your subject to see which best complements and brings out their unique facial features.

Broad Lighting

Photo by Timothy Paul Smith

Broad lighting refers to when the highlighted side of a model's face is closer to the camera than the shaded side of their face. To apply this technique, have your model angle one side of their face closer to the main light source so that a shadow slightly obscures the farther side. 

Photo by Joanna Nix

Since most people want to look slim in their portraits, however, they typically don’t find this type of lighting the most flattering. As its name suggests, it tends to widen (or broaden) the features of your subject. Save this technique for when you photograph subjects with narrow facial features.

Short Lighting

Photo by Aiony Haust

Short lighting is the most common lighting method that photographers use because of its ability to create flattering facial profiles. 

Photo by Blake Cheek

Instead of turning slightly away from the light source, your model is facing towards it. Consequently, a shadow is cast over the side of the model's face closest to the camera, creating the appearance of a slimmer face.

03. Identify the lighting pattern that suits your concept

Photo by Joe Robles

Lighting patterns are basically the shadows created on your model’s face depending on the type and position of the light source. Simple as it may sound, lighting patterns can help you achieve the mood you want in your portraits.

Loop lighting  

Photo by Ryan Holloway

Loop lighting is arguably among the most popular lighting pattern since it’s the easiest to create. Its name comes from the shadow this pattern casts on one side of your model’s nose. What differentiates this pattern from Rembrandt lighting is that the shadow on the nose and cheek do not meet.

Photo by Taylor Hernandez

To apply loop lighting, angle your light source about 30 to 45 degrees facing the model, and position it slightly above your model’s head. Make sure the light source is at the right height, so the loop doesn’t reach your model’s mouth. If the light is too harsh and creates strong shadows, diffuse it by placing a reflector opposite the light source.

Butterfly lighting

Another commonly used pattern, Butterfly lighting is distinguished by the butterfly-like outline it casts under the model’s nose. It’s often used for studio portraits because it lights up the entire face and produces the least shadows.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

To set up your butterfly lighting, place your light source directly behind your camera. It should also be higher than your model, so that it can cast that butterfly outline under the nose. Furthermore, the angle needs to be between 30 to 45 degrees to prevent the shadow it casts from getting too long and reaching the mouth.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris

Butterfly lighting tends to make the blemishes on your model more visible. So when using this technique, be prepared to do some retouching after the shoot to make the skin look more flattering.

Rembrandt lighting

If you want a more stylized effect, then try Rembrandt lighting.

As you’ve probably guessed, this technique is named after the famous Dutch painter who mastered using light in his portraits. Its use of chiaroscuro (the play between light and dark) produces more dramatic pictures than other lighting patterns.

Photo by Thought Catalog

What makes Rembrandt lighting distinct from other patterns is the triangle of light it casts on your model’s cheek (on the side that’s in the shadow).

Photo by Bryan Apen

To make it appear on your model’s face, place your light source about 45 degrees facing them and position it above eye-level.

Photo by Jota Lao

Make sure that the triangle doesn’t end up longer than your model’s nose or wider than their mouth. If you get it right, your portrait should resemble a classic painting—with both the light and the shadow working together to emphasize your model’s features.

Split lighting

Another specialized lighting pattern you can use for specific portraits is split lighting. This pattern's name is derived from the way one half of the model's face is fully-lit, while the other half is blacked-out with shadow.

Photo by Elijah M. Henderson

For split lighting, just place your light source directly beside your model, and you’ll see the effect right away. Position the light at eye-level to ensure that the beam doesn’t spill on to the other side of the face. If you don’t want the dark half of the face to be entirely in the shadow, use a reflector to bounce some light back to your model.

Photo by Lucas Affonso Santos

Split lighting may be simple to execute, but you can’t use it all the time due to the stark mood it creates. Use it when you want to add some mystery or drama to your portrait. Otherwise, try to stick to lighting patterns that aren’t as extreme.

04. Elevate your portraits with lighting tricks

There are also quite a few lighting techniques that you can use to maximize the potential of your portrait photography. Though they may be simple, they make a huge difference when used properly.

Photo by JC Gellidon

The first essential tip is to use a catch light, a.k.a. a light source which creates a specular highlight in your model’s eyes. When you set up your lighting, make sure that it’s in the correct position and the right angle to create a glint either in the middle or the upper corner of the iris. Therefore, your catch light should either be in front or slightly to the side of the person you’re shooting.

Photo by Ludvig Wiese

Apart from the catch light, you should also consider using a reflector. Ask a friend to hold it up adjacent to the light source and angle it sideways, so light bounces on to your model’s face. The beam it reflects gets rid of unflattering shadows your light source may cast on your model, hence making your portrait more aesthetically pleasing.

Photo by Qasim Sadiq

Just like everything else, it takes some practice to really master portrait lighting techniques. Nevertheless, once you get the hang of it, it becomes an indispensable part of your arsenal of photography skills. 

Chad Verzosa is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Clearwater, Florida. When not traveling, he likes to spend his time printing pictures in the darkroom.