5 creative studio lighting patterns for flattering portraits

The real challenge with studio portraits is where to position the lights for the most flattering result. Many lighting setups, often termed ‘lighting patterns’, only use a single light, while others use two or more. Different patterns suit different faces, so consider who it is you’re shooting and what the image is for. If you’re taking a headshot, a clean, straightforward lighting style is the way to go. But for artistic black & whites, an edgy setup with shadows looks great. As a general rule, keep the lights around forehead height for women, and about 6in higher for men. In most cases, the light should be around 3ft from the face. Let’s check out five common lighting patterns for portraits. The first three use only one light, and the last two a second light. Experiment with different setups to find the most flattering looks.

One light - Butteryfly lighting: Flattering for all face types and both sexes, butterfly lighting is so-called because it produces a butterfly shape under the nose.

One light - Butteryfly lighting: Flattering for all face types and both sexes, butterfly lighting is so-called because it produces a butterfly shape under the nose.

One light - Rembrandt lighting: A style often used by Rembrandt in his paintings, you’re aiming to create a distinct triangle of light immediately under the eye.

One light - Rembrandt lighting: A style often used by Rembrandt in his paintings, you’re aiming to create a distinct triangle of light immediately under the eye.

One light - split lighting: Ideal for male portraits, aim to get half the face lit and half in shadow. Ideally, though, a chink of light will illuminate the ‘dark’ eye. 

One light - split lighting: Ideal for male portraits, aim to get half the face lit and half in shadow. Ideally, though, a chink of light will illuminate the ‘dark’ eye. 

Two lights - cross lighting: Set up two lights so they face each other, keeping the subject in the middle. The front light should be at a 45° angle to the subject.

Two lights - cross lighting: Set up two lights so they face each other, keeping the subject in the middle. The front light should be at a 45° angle to the subject.

Two lights - butterfly and hair light: Point a light at the subject from behind to give a halo effect around the head. This helps them stand out against the background

Two lights - butterfly and hair light: Point a light at the subject from behind to give a halo effect around the head. This helps them stand out against the background

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.