Lighting Styles

Lighting has three main purposes:

  1. Create an illusion of depth (modeling).
  2. Create a mood.
  3. Normalize (or, conversely, emphasize) the subject's features.


A studio lighting system usually includes at least two light sources, the main and the fill light. Other light sources such as background lights and accent lights can be added, as well. The Main Light is the dominant light source in a portrait lighting setup. Therefore, portrait lighting styles are defined by the relationship of the Main Light to the mask, or front, of the subject's face. Two factors determine the style of lighting. The first factor is the side of the face that the Main Light is directed toward.

Distance to Subject and Relative Size of Light Source

Hard Light Soft Light

The apparent size of a light source depends on its relative size to the subject and its distance from the subject. The relative size of a light source has a dramatic effect on the shape and brightness of the highlight as well as the softness of shadows cast by the light.

A light source that is relatively large compared to a subject (a large softbox 3 feet from an apple, for example) will result in soft shadows, low contrast and a less sharp highlight. A smaller light source (small bulb 3 feet from the same apple) will result in greater contrast, increased brightness in the highlight and sharper shadows. Typically, portrait photographers desire a large relative light source for its soft qualities.

Distance from the subject can also cause the same light source to appear soft or harsh. A large softbox is relatively larger than an apple at 3 feet, but moving the softbox back to 15 feet makes it much smaller relative to the apple thus producing the same hard light that would come from a small source that was close to the apple. This is the reason for the various sizes of light modifiers that are available.

Experiment with your light source to see the effects of relative size and distance to subject. Soon you will be able to predict the results of your lighting setup when you make changes. A smooth object like a ball will most easily show the light quality in your photo.


Broad Lighting:

Here the main light illuminates the side of the subject's face turned toward the camera -- the broad view. It tends to flatten the illusion of depth and de-emphasize her facial features.

To create a broad light, pose your subject to show a 2/3 or 3/4 view of the face and direct your main light toward the side of the face that is closest to the camera.

A broad light can be used to add weight to a face that is too thin.

Broad Lighting Setup


Short Lighting:

Still further left, we get the popular short or narrow lighting. It narrows round faces and brings out the contours much better than broad lighting.



To create a short light, pose your subject to show a 2/3 or 3/4 view of the face and direct your main light toward the side of the face that is furthest away from the camera. Short light can be used to slenderize a face that is too heavy. Although short lighting was considered the masculine style of lighting, today this style is used more than any other, when photographing women as well as men.

The second factor that defines lighting style is the relationship between the angle of the Main Light and the subject's nose axis.

Short Lighting Setup


45 degree Lighting or Rembrandt lighting:

Still further left around our subject, until a triangular patch of light remains on the leading cheek, is reminiscent of many of Rembrandt's portrait paintings. As in butterfly lighting, the light needs to be fairly high -- like Rembrandt's studio skylight.

Direct your Main Light toward your subject's face at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. You can use 45 degree light from the broad side, or the short side and to light either a full face or profile portrait. The Main Light should be placed higher than the subject's head and is directed down and at an angle of about 45 degrees. One characteristic of 45 degree lighting is the triangle of light from the Main Light that is on the shadow side of the subject's face.


Butterfly or Glamour Lighting:

The term, "Butterfly Lighting," comes from a characteristic butterfly shaped shadow beneath the subject's nose. If you want to use butterfly lighting you should line your Main Light up along your subject's nose axis and then raise the light until you see the characteristic shadow. This style of lighting is also known as glamour lighting because it was used extensively by the great Hollywood portrait photographers of the '20s, '30s and '40s. Although light placement is identical for butterfly and glamour lighting, photographers such as George Hurrell gave it a special look by using a spotlight as the Main Light rather than a softer light source. If you move your Main Light a little to the left or right, you will change your lighting style into a modified butterfly pattern.

Paramount (Butterfly) Lighting - Studio Lighting Setup

Paramount Lighting, sometimes called Butterfly Lighting for the shape of the shadow it forms under the nose, is a female glamour lighting style. It works best for women with strong cheek bones and good skin. This lighting is not typically used with male subjects.

The key light is placed high with the fill light directly under it. Keeping the light close to the subject, watch for the butterfly shaped shadow to form under the nose. Be careful not to place their eyes in shadow.

The fill light is placed at roughly head height and can be accompanied or replaced by a reflector under the face to lighten the shadows under the chin and lower cheek.

Moving the light further camera-left, we hit the sitter right between the eyes producing a symmetrical butterfly effect with the shadows on the features. With some softening, we could call this your basic glamour lighting. A well- proportioned, oval face benefits most from this light.



Split Lighting:

Split lighting divides the face along its center. Split Lighting is probably the least used style of portrait lighting, but it can be very effective. The easiest way to create split lighting is to place your Main Light just as you would for 45° lighting. While watching the patch of light on the shadow side of your subject's face, lower the Main Light and move it to the side until the shadow-side highlight disappears. If you want to add an accent of light to the shadow, move it back just a little until a very small touch of light reappears on the shadow side of the face.

Finally, at 90 degrees left so that only half of the subject's face is illuminated is aptly called split lighting. In addition to creating dramatic effects, this lighting can hide defects on the shadow side or narrow a broad nose.


Accent Lighting for Portraits

Accent lighting isn't always necessary, but can be important, if not essential, in certain situations. If you use a dark background, dark hair and clothing may blend into the background if you do not use a background light or accent lights. A properly placed accent light provides separation between the subject and the background.

Background Light

When lighting a background, place your background light where it will be hidden from the camera and at a position where it will illuminate the background without spilling onto the subject. For example, you can direct the background light toward the background from behind the subject, or from either or both sides of the set.

You can control how light or how dark a background will photograph by adjusting the relationship between the intensity of the background light and the intensity of the light falling on the subject. First, take a reading using an incident light meter from the subject position. If you want the background to photograph in its true tonality, that is if you want a light gray background to photograph as light gray, adjust the intensity of the background illumination until your meter reads the same as the subject reading. For example, if your subject reading is f/8, your background reading should also be f/8.

You can create a lighter background by increasing the intensity of the background light. If your exposure reading at the subject position is f/8, adjust the amount of light on your background until the meter reads f/16, and expose for the subject at f/8. Your background will be two stops overexposed and will appear much lighter than it really is.

You can create a darker background by reducing the intensity of the background light. For example, if your exposure reading at the subject position is f/8, adjust the intensity of the background light to f/5.6, expose for the subject at f/8 and your background will be one stop underexposed and will appear darker than it really is.

It is just as important to light a white background properly, because without the correct amount of light, a white background will photograph as a dirty gray, or perhaps a starker white than you desire. You may find that your background will photograph as a cleaner white if you add enough light to boost the background reading by 1/2 to 1 full f-stop.

Accent Light and Kickers

Accent lights are seldom absolutely necessary, but they can turn an ordinary portrait into one that is outstanding. The most commonly used accent light is a hairlight. Unless you use a hairlight, your subject's hair may blend into the background and will probably photograph somewhat darker than it really is. When you use a hairlight you should adjust its intensity until your incident light reading is equal to or more intense that the subject reading. If the reading is equal or close to equal, you will get a natural effect with improved hair texture. If you choose, you can increase the intensity of the hairlight to produce a more dramatic effect.

Your hairlight should be placed high and slightly behind the subject and aimed toward the subject's hair. You can use any type of light source as long as you can adjust it so that it reaches only those areas you want to illuminate. For example, you can use a strobe with a small reflector. You can also use a soft box or a small to medium-sized strip light fitted with louvers for more precise light control. Regardless of the type light you select, it is best to mount your hairlight on a boom, a track system or some other type of ceiling support system.

Hairlights aren't the only type of accent lights. You can add an accent light, called a kicker, from any position that allows you to illuminate only the area you want to accent. For example, a kicker can be behind and to the side of the subject. This light can add a rim of light along the side of the subject's face, adding interest and sparkle to the photograph.



High Middle and Low Key lighting

When used in portrait photography, the term “Key” refers to the overall tone of the final photograph. The elements of the portrait that play into the tone of it are the color of the background, the color of clothing used and the color of any props or foreground elements. Portraits that have a consistent key generally have much more of an impact that those whose elements are not consistent. It is true as well that, though rare, tones can be mixed in a photo with success. A danger in mixing tones is that the potential for confusion on the part of the viewer.

Generally, portraits are classified in one of three keys – low key, middle key or high key. Low key portraits are created using a dark background and dark clothing and props. You can identify the key of a portrait by determining the average tone for the scene.

Generally a low key portrait would have more dark elements than bright ones. Clothing and background might be black or dark browns giving the feeling of drama or rigidity. Low key portraits may also be shot with a higher lighting ratio near 3:1 as contrast is acceptable due to the drama of a lower tone.

A high key portrait setup would involve the use of a white or off white background and brighter clothing. A high key portrait can be challenging as it requires a great deal of light control and has the most risk of overexposure and loss of detail. In general they would have a low lighting ratio near 2:1. A common background for high key portraits is paper which is slightly overexposed resulting in a pure white seamless background and a feeling of cleanliness. Great care is usually taken to separate the subject from the background to eliminate shadows. These portraits also tend to require more light and thus more power and lighting equipment to create.

As expected, a photo which has tones in the middle of high and low would be called a middle key portrait. Often middle key portraits will use skin tone to set the mood. In these cases, clothing may be used to accent the tone of the skin with contrast rather than allow all elements to blend together. Often a high key portrait can be converted to a middle key portrait by reducing exposure.

Often the background sets the tone for the image and as such key should be a consideration at the beginning of a portrait setup. A background should not take focus off of the subject, but rather help lead the eye to the subject in the final image. Take time to identify your overall tone, or key before you arrange the lighting setup and you will be surprised at the results.

Back Lighting - Studio Lighting Setup


Back Lighting is a flattering dramatic lighting style. It can be effective for covering skin blemishes due to the generally soft portraits it can produce. Since the light is coming from behind the subject, lens flare is typical, but accepted.

The main light should be a large light source or a smaller one aimed at a white background (effectively using the background as the source). The portrait can be taken with a reflector providing fill light or without a reflector for a silhouette effect.


Nickolas Muray

Arnold Newman

Paul Outerbridge

Joel Peter Witkin

Willy Ronis

Edward Weston

Cindy Sherman