Studio Lighting Fundamentals:
I’m receiving a lot of mail asking me to explain a little more of the thought process that goes into the “methods of my madness, when deciding how to configure lighting setups“. I skipped a few important steps when I fist started writing lighting tutorials. Perhaps I assumed this was common knowledge, but lets just start at the very beginning for those questing more. My setups are nothing unique and as badly as I wish I could take the credit for these, I can not… All of my lighting setups are called Lighting Patterns, I learned them in college many years ago and I use these lighting patterns religiously with every studio shot I make.
When working in the studio, it is important to understand the basics of classic studio lighting and there effects. One of the key elements that separate an acceptable portrait from exceptional portraits is the quality of lighting. By understanding the basics of studio lighting and having a few lighting accessories, you can produce exceptional photographs without breaking the bank with useless gadgets and add a higher degree of consistency to your results.
The Four Categories of Classic Lighting – Patterns.
There are four classic categories of portraiture lighting styles I use every day: Rembrandt, Paramount, (Butterfly or Glamour) Loop, and Split Lighting. Photographers typically refer to these four classic styles of lighting, regardless of the subject. I may for example tell my friends; I used butterfly lighting on a commercial car shot.
Today many portrait photographers prefer diffused light sources, which are very forgiving and do not create sharp edged shadows. They flatter years away by softening wrinkles and crows-feet near the eyes. With soft light setups, the background, the hair, and kicker lights may be diffused if you wish. For example, Stripboxes can be used to create long soft highlights in hair, outline the edge of a body, or create unique background shadows. The overall aesthetics of using soft light is seen as more contemporary, enhancing images within today’s fashion industry. As a major plus soft light is also a lot easier to master. Big soft light sources are inherently forgiving, and since the subject is basically wrapped in soft light, postwork retouching is minimized. Also, the transfer edge, where shadow and highlight areas meet, are more gradual than with undiffused lights.
In the preceding light patterns I broke one of my own golden rules – Never shoot a human straight on. Hey, I don’t work for DMV and I hope you realize this is not the most flattering angle for portraiture work, but it will show you the Light Patterns quickly and you can go onto other articles for posing suggestions (or buy my Android/iPhone posing app, coming soon!)
Rembrandt lighting is one of the more popular lighting techniques used in the studio photography. It can be achieved using one light, but more typically done with a reflector, or two lights. Today’s popularity is based upon the natural and/or dramatic lighting effects with minimal equipment. This lighting technique takes its name from the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who used skylights to illuminate his subjects in his studio.
Rembrandt lighting is sometimes called 45-degree lighting it is characterized by a small, triangular highlight on the shadowed cheek of the subject. Old timer lighting geeks will sometimes refer to this as a chiaroscuro, but it’s a triangle to the rest of us.J The triangle should be no longer than the nose and not extend beyond the eye. This technique may be achieved subtly or very dramatically by altering the distance between subject and lights and relative strengths of main and fill lights. This type of lighting is dramatic. It is most often used with male subjects, and is commonly with a weak fill light to slightly accentuate the shadow-side. Back in my college days we were taught to place our main umbrella at a 45 degree angle for the subject, with the center axis approximately 4 inches above the subject’s eyes, when shooting portraiture work.
In the real world, Rembrandt Lighting is often confused with Short Lighting and is commonly used incorrectly with a single light source to light half the face, while leaving the other half of the face in some degree of shadow. This is because you will often see the triangle of light just right on shadow side of the subjects face.
Paramount Lighting, also known as Glamour Lighting, also known as Butterfly Lighting, is achieved by positioning the main light directly in front of the subjects face and adjusting the height to create a shadow directly under the nose. Position your fill aimed upward several feet below the key. This style is best suited for subjects with a normal oval face and is considered to be glamour style of lighting. It is also best suited for women, but any subject with a lot of hair causing distracting facial shadowing. It is not recommended for use with heavyset people or people with very short hair because it has a tendency to highlight the ears.
Lighting placement tends to very greatly in today’s common adaptations. I generally start with my main directly centered and above the subjects head. My fill was positioned 2’ below the key and slightly to the right. I configured the fill one full stop under that of my main. A lot of photographers like to use one light and a reflector. Just for giggles I once hung a 72” octabox fourteen feet above the floor and used a 3’ silver reflector on the floor to bounce light back up under the chin. The effect was so flattering we used this setup for over a year.
Butterfly Lighting allows you to get by with one light. Put the key light high (slightly above subject’s eye level) and directly in front of the subject. The nose shadow appears directly under the nose and should be about midway between the upper lip and the base of the nose for best appearance. This type of setup can help hide a large nose, a double chin, or thin face. You may wish to use a reflector somewhere under the face (out of the picture) to help fill in shadowed areas like eye sockets. The reflector may also be used to provide a catch light in the eyes to give them sparkle.
Sometime people trip me out with the lighting terms themselves. A fashion model for example may be very resistant to Glamour, so I’ll call this Butterfly lighting. With men I’ll call this Paramount lighting and, of course, Glamour models feel more successful with Glamour Lighting…
Loop Lighting is an excellent technique to helps broaden the face and works exceptionally well with long or narrow faces. The loop from the nose area should not touch the shadow area on the side of the face. Your Key Light should be lower than that used with Paramount Lighting and moved in closer toward the background. The Fill Light should be even with the camera and up higher while remaining opposite your Key Light.
Loop Lighting gets its name from the loop-shaped shadow that it creates under the nose, and this is one of the most frequently used lighting patterns because it is considered to be one of the more flattering and adaptable pattern. It lights most of the face while imparting a sense of depth.
Loop Lighting is easily achieved by positioning your key light high and to the side of your subject. When using this lighting technique on women I like to start at a 45 degree angle and adjust the light to avoid shadows on the face caused by the hair. The nose shadow should drop in a small loop at an angle to the nose. Technically it should not extend beyond the edge of the mouth, nor should it ever drop as low as the lip. The fill light should remain as close to the centerline of the camera’s axis. Shadows on both side of the nose or conflicting shadows need to be avoided at all costs. They are considered to be very amateurish and very unprofessional.
Split lighting is simply lighting half of the subject’s face, while leaving the other half in complete shadow. This form of lighting creates major drama in portraits and really adds a little variety to a portfolio. While this “typical” lighting technique is not one of my favorites, I do use variants of this basic setup all the time. Split is a great place to start when you are going after a more mysterious mood. It is an ideal slimming light. It can be used to narrow a wide face or nose. It can also be used with a weak fill to hide facial irregularities and still retain the drama.
As you can tell by this examples this setup only requires one light to create a high quality, dramatic portrait. Position this key light to one side of your subject so that it is 90 degrees to one side, ideally you will split the light directly down the center of the subjects nose. My lighting diagram to the right illustrates the positioning of my key light. You can use your favorite lighting modifier to add to the drama, I used a softbox in this example. This lighting technique works exceptionally well with hard or soft light sources.
One nice side effect created with split lighting is that reflected light often bounces back into the crease of a smile, enhancing the lips and/or smile. Attempting split lighting on location offers many challenges, but also allows you to present models surrounded by many structures and geodesic shapes. Locations usually increase the difficulty factor with a higher, harder to control ambient light, you less flexibility than shooting portraits in an indoor studio environment. I have seen many photographers build on this with hair light, shot fill and even high key back lighting adds a unique quality to the Split Lighting technique…
Flat Lighting is accomplished by putting both your designated key and fill lights at 45 degrees on either side of the subject and powering them so that each meters the same. No shadows will appear on the subject’s face. This is the technique used for copy-stand lighting and is flat. We consider flat lighting very unprofessional in portraiture work and make all attempts to avoid flat lighting situations. In other areas of commercial photography it is or was very mainstream at one time or the other.
Lighting in and around a fur collared jacket is very difficult with only two lights. Sometimes flat lighting is better then passing on the shot altogether. But you will need to decide from this cropped version of a glamour shot we did for Rosa’s boyfriend’s birthday gift :) When I do use this lighting setup on human subjects, I tend to set one light a half or full stop under my main. Thanking of it as a horizontal Butterfly pattern, of sorts…
Anyone wanna guess which lighting pattern I used for this portrait of Rosa? The answer is in the 1st comment below
About the Author
I'm a Northern California Professional Photographer, based just outside San Francisco. I specialize in commercial product advertizing and architectural. I have been working with Bay Area modeling agencies for more then 10 years, shooting portfolio development for models and high-end makeup artists. I am highly creative and always unique. I shoot cutting edge projects, both in the studio and on location.
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