If you’re new to portrait photography, basic lighting patterns are a very useful thing to master. But if you want to use them efficiently, it’s not just about knowing how to create them, but also why. In this video from Adorama, Pye Jirsa explains primary key light patterns: how to create them, but also the purpose behind each of them. They work for studio light as well as natural light, so I believe many of you will find this video useful.
The video focuses on positioning the key light in the studio. However, you can apply the same principles when shooting outside with natural light. The difference is that, when using the sunlight, you’ll change your subject and camera positioning to get the light pattern you want.
Pye introduces five main lighting patterns in a very logical order. He starts with flat light which creates very little shadows, moving towards split light that creates very strong, dramatic shadows. So let’s begin.
1. Flat lighting
To create flat lighting, you need to have the light source that comes from the same direction as your lens. It can be an on-camera flash or a larger source of light right behind you. The result is a direct light with almost no contrast and shadows. Consequently, it’s also the most flattering type of light – it fills out all imperfections and fine lines. Therefore, flat lighting is often used for beauty and fashion images.
2. Butterfly (Paramount) lighting
Butterfly lighting is similar to the previous type in a way that the light is coming from the same direction as your camera. However, to create the butterfly light, you need to lift the light source so it’s above your camera and it shines down onto your subject’s face.
This light creates a butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose and that’s how it was named. But the nickname “Paramount lighting” comes from the studio which used this type of lighting to shoot their models. They would normally use a beauty dish to create hard and dramatic shadows.
When it comes to the purpose of butterfly lighting, it adds a bit of drama, but it’s still flattering. Maybe I can say that it brings together the best of both worlds, and it’s also often used for beauty portraits.
3. Loop lighting
Let’s say you can transition from butterfly to loop lighting. It’s created when the light source is above your subject, but you move it to the side, at around 20-30 degrees from your camera. This way you’ll create a bit of a shadow on one side of your subject’s face, but it still won’t form the little triangle of light that you get with Rembrandt lighting.
4. Rembrandt lighting
Just like in the third example, you can transition from one pattern to the other. If you start with the setup for loop lighting and move the light source a bit more, you’ll create Rembrandt lighting. The light should be above your model and at about 45 degrees to your camera, and it should form a highlight triangle on the shadow side of your subject’s face.
As the name suggests, this lighting pattern was named after the famous painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who used it a lot in his portraits. It’s a beautiful, dramatic type of lighting and a favorite of many photographers.
5. Split lighting
In terms of shadows, this is the most extreme and the most dramatic of the five types. You should move the light source to one side of your model, still lifted above their head. This way, you’ll have one side of the face lit, and the other will be in the shadow. When you want to create drama and mystery, this lighting pattern is the way to go.
As a bonus point, keep in mind that all these patterns can be modified by adding fill light. You can make the shadows more or less prominent and it depends on the amount of fill light you decide to implement. But if you’re new to portrait photography, take it one step at a time. Learn the basics first and then expand your setup and experiment with it.