5 Easy Portrait Lighting Setups
One of the essential skills in creating professional portraits is mastering the use of light. Lighting setups don’t have to be difficult, but they aren’t random — the position and brightness of the lights influences the outcome in dramatic ways, as does the view’s angle of your subject. Sometimes you’ll be working in a studio — perhaps a venue you’ve rented on Peerspace — and, other times, you’ll need your lights to work in conjunction with natural light.
These descriptions of easy portrait lighting setups are intended for beginners as an introduction, but it’s always useful for seasoned professionals to brush up on the basics as well. Three of these setups require only one light, while one uses a reflector in addition to a light source, and the last requires two lights. In all cases, these are considered minimalist lighting setups, making them easy to achieve for people who’ve only just started building their lighting kits or are renting gear and trying to keep costs down.
1. Rembrandt lighting
Rembrandt lighting, named after the painter, is a common and flattering lighting setup. It can be achieved with a strobe or by positioning your subject near a window. It creates a small triangle of light on the cheek, formed by shadows cast by the nose and cheek. These two shadows connect, leaving the light triangle. Ideally, the eye on the shadowed side of the face has a small catch light or reflection from the light source. This is considered a dramatic lighting style, but it’s flattering for most faces.
To achieve this lighting, have your subject turn slightly away from the light source. The light source must also be above the head of the subject, so that the appropriate shadow is cast on the cheek by the nose. This lighting setup works best with people who have higher cheekbones and larger noses, as a flatter nose won’t cast the appropriate shadow to achieve true Rembrandt lighting. Even so, you may find the effect flattering without the perfect shadow — experiment with it.
2. Butterfly lighting
Butterfly lighting, also known as Paramount lighting, gets its name from the butterfly-shaped shadow created under the subject’s nose. This is achieved by placing a light source behind the camera and above the subject’s head. The photographer is then positioned under the light source. Sometimes it may be necessary to position a reflector under the subject’s chin, depending on their facial structure.
Additionally, keep in mind that the height of the light source will affect the length of the shadows — a taller light source makes a longer shadow on the subject’s face. If your subject turns their head slightly in one direction, you’ll get a more dramatic shadow under the cheekbones. This is a good portrait lighting setup for someone with high cheekbones or a thin face. Someone with a rounder face might be less flattered in this light, though. This is also a good lighting setup for elder subjects, as it emphasizes wrinkles less when compared to side lighting.
3. Split lighting
Just as the name implies, the split portrait lighting setup cuts a person’s face into equal halves — one side is lit and the other is in shadow. This is a more dramatic portrait lighting setup, and it’s less common than other styles. However, if you need a lighting setup that creates drama and stands out, this is a good one to try.
The split lighting setup is, fortunately, very easy. To achieve it, place your light source 90-degrees to the right or left of your subject’s face. The exact placement and height of the light will vary based on your subject’s face, so feel free to experiment. Observe how the light falls across the face in test shots and adjust your light source accordingly.
Split lighting highlights the texture of a subject’s face, so it may not be as flattering as other setups. This is especially true for subjects who are elderly, as split lighting will call a lot of attention to skin wrinkles. This may not be an effect you’re after, so keep this in mind when choosing this setup.
4. Loop lighting
The loop lighting technique creates a small shadow with the subject’s nose and cheek. In true loop lighting, the nose and cheek shadows don’t touch. This setup tends to have a lengthening effect on the subject’s face and is often used for acting headshots. It’s similar to butterfly lighting, except the light is set up further to the side.
In order to achieve this lighting style, you need to raise your light source slightly higher than your subject. In fact, it’s often positioned behind them. Immediately in front of the light, and at a 30- to 45-degree angle from the subject, place a reflector. The reflector must also be slightly above the eye level of the subject. This setup also works using sunlight, with your subject facing away from the sun. The light gets caught by the reflector and then bounces off the subject’s face.
5. Rim lighting
Rim lighting is a great portrait lighting setup to separate your subject from the background — in fact, it will be most striking when using a black background, though you can use this technique under any studio conditions. This lighting setup requires placing one light to the side of your subject — it can be at a 90-degree angle, directly in front of your subject, or anywhere in between. Changing the position of the side light will determine how dramatic the portrait appears.
The key to this setup is the placement of a light behind the subject, called a kicker light. This light must be close to the subject and below them, aimed at the back of their head. It also must be more powerful than the side light. The result is a slight outline of light around the subject’s head, isolating it from the backdrop. You’ll see this setup used frequently in sports and fashion portraits since it is both dramatic and flattering for most subjects.
Great photographers spend a lot of time thinking about light. It is, after all, integral to the very physical act of how we visually process images, making it one of the photographer’s strongest tools. All of these lighting setups are easily implemented and don’t require a substantial amount of lighting equipment. They’re ideal for beginners to experiment with. Good fundamentals create amazing photographs! As you know by now, getting better at photography is all about experimentation, so get out there and make some portraits.