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Basic Portrait Lighting Setups

Today's post is an ex
cerpt from the book Wedding Photography: Advanced Techniques for Digital Photographers, by Bill Hurter. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

There are two basic types of p
ortrait lighting: broad lighting and short lighting. Broad lighting means that the main light is illuminating the side of the face that is turned toward the camera. Broad lighting is used less frequently than short lighting because it flattens and de-emphasizes facial contours. It is often used to widen a thin or long face. Short lighting means that the main light is illuminating the side of the face turned away from the camera. Short lighting emphasizes facial contours and can be used to narrow a round or wide face. When used with a weak fill light, short lighting produces a dramatic effect with bold highlights and deep shadows.


While it may prove difficult or even impossible to replicat
e any one of the five basic portrait lighting setups on the day of the wedding, it is still a good idea to know what they are and how to achieve them. Each of the lighting patterns takes its personality from the placement of the main light. The concept of single-source lighting is important. The sun is the primary light source in all of nature; all other light sources are subordinate to it. This is the rule of the main light in the studio; like the sun, it is the single light to which any other lights are subordinate.

Paramount Lighting. Paramount lighting, sometimes called butterfly lighting or glamour lighting, is a lighting pattern that produces a symmetrical, butterfly-shaped shadow directly beneath the subject’s nose. It emphasizes cheekbones and go
od skin. It is generally not used on men because it tends to hollow out cheeks and eye sockets too much.

For this style, the main light is placed high and directly in front of the subject’s face, parallel to the vertical line of the subject’s nose. Since the light must be high and close to the subject to produce the wanted butterfly shadow, it should not be used on women with deep eye sockets, or very little light will illuminate the eyes.

The fill light is placed at the subject’s head height directly under the main light. Since both the main and fill lights are on the same side of the camera, a refl
ector must be used opposite these lights and in close to the subject to fill in the deep shadows on the neck and shaded cheek. The hair light, which is always used opposite the main light, should light the hair only and not skim onto the face of the subject. The background light, used low and behind the subject, should form a semi-circle of illumination on the seamless background (if using one) so that the tone of the background grows gradually darker toward the edges of the frame.

Loop Lighting. Loop lighting is a minor variation of Paramount lighting. The main light is lowered and moved more to the side of the subject so that the shadow under the nose becomes a small loop on the shadow side of the face. This is one of the more comm
only used lighting setups and is ideal for people with average, oval-shaped faces.

Loop lighting is an intermediate pattern between butterfly an
d Rembrandt lighting. The main light is high and to one side of the model’s face, but not as high as in the butterfly pattern, nor as low as in the Rembrandt pattern. Here no fill light was used in order to keep the light dramatic. Photograph by JB Sallee.

The fill light is moved to the opposite side of the camera from the main light in loop lighting. It is used close to the camera lens. In order to mainta
in the one-light character of the portrait, it is important that the fill light not cast a shadow of its own. To determine if the fill light is doing its job, you need to evaluate it from the camera position. Check to see if the fill light is casting a shadow of its own by looking through the viewfinder. In loop lighting, the hair light and background lights are used the same way they are in Paramount lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting. Rembrandt or 45-degree lighting is characterized by a small, triangular highlight on the shadowed cheek of the subject. It takes its name from the
famous Dutch painter who used window light to illuminate his subjects. This lighting is dramatic and more often used with masculine subjects. Rembrandt lighting is often used with a weak fill light to accentuate the shadow-side highlight.

This is a beautiful image made with a single softbox a
nd no fill. The lighting is true Rembrandt-style with a perfect triangular highlight on the shadow side of her face. Note, too, the elegant posing of the hands. Photograph by Cherie Steinberg Coté.

For Rembrandt lighting, the main light is moved lower and f
arther to the side than in loop and Paramount lighting. In fact, the main light comes almost from the subject’s side, depending on how far his or her head is turned away from the camera.

The fill light is used in the same manner as it is for loop lighting. The hair light, however, is often used a little closer to the subject for more brilliant highlights in the hair. The background light is in the standard position.

With Rembrandt lighting, kickers are often used to delineate th
e sides of the face. As with all front-facing lights, avoid shining them directly into the lens. The best way to check for this is to place your hand between the subject and the camera on the axis of the kicker. If your hand casts a shadow on the lens, then the kicker is shining directly into the lens and should be adjusted.

Split Lighting. Split lighting occurs when the main light illumina
tes only half the face. It is an ideal slimming light. It can also be used with a weak fill to hide facial irregularities. Split lighting can also be used with no fill light for dramatic effect.

In split lighting, the main light is moved farther to the side of the subject and lower. In some cases, the main light may be slightly behind the subject, depending on ho
w far the subject is turned from the camera. The fill light, hair light, and background light are used normally for split lighting.

Cherie Steinberg Coté photographed this unusual bridal veil, and hat. Because of the size of the hat, the rounded softbox was lowered to a little above face height, producing a hybrid split lighting. The close proximity and softness of the light caused the light to wrap around the contours of the bride’s face with no shadow edges. The position of the main light and the turn of the head dictates the type of lighting pattern that will be produced.

In this exceptional image by Dan Doke, the bride was
lit with a modified profile-lighting pattern. The head was not fully turned in the traditional profile pose and, as a result, the main light is not a true backlight, although it is behind the bride.

Profile or Rim Lighting. Profile or rim lighting is used when the subject’s head is turned 90 degrees away from the camera lens. It is a dramatic style of lighting used to accent elegant features. It is used less frequently now than in the past, but it is still a stylish look.

In rim lighting, the main light is placed behind the subject so that it illuminates the profile of the subject and leaves a polished highlight along the edge of the face. The main light will also highlight the hair and neck of the subject. Care should be taken so that the accent of the light is centered on the face and not so much on the hair or neck.

The fill light is moved to the same side of the camera as the main light and a reflector is used to fill in the shadows. An optional hair light can be used on the opposite side of the main light for better tonal separation of the hair from the background. The background light is used normally.

While the basic lighting patterns do not have to be used with absolute precision, it is essential to know what they are and how to achieve them. If, for instance, you are photographing your bride and groom outdoors, you can position a single main light to produce the desired lighting pattern and ratio, then use the ambient light (shade or backlighting) as the fill light. No other lights are needed to produce every one of the five basic portrait lighting setups. The use of reflectors, instead of an independent fill light or kickers, may accomplish much the same results in terms of controlling light.

You can also create an elegant profile of the bride with a single flash used as a backlight, outlining the edges of her face, neck, and the wedding veil. With the daylight as fill, only one light is required to produce an elegant, classically lit portrait.

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