Seven portrait photographers discuss how they achieve four classic lighting patterns—Rembrandt, loop, butterfly, and split. Here are their methods.
When she first started, the London-based portrait photographer Laura BC thought she needed a studio full of lights. “I was so frustrated when I couldn’t afford more than one light when I was a beginner,” she remembers now. “But, being limited to one light was a blessing. By practicing with one light, I discovered so many creative ways to use it to achieve different moods in all my portrait work.”
Most of the portraits featured throughout this article use only one key light, perhaps with a reflector to open up the shadows. At most, they use a two-light setup.
However, while the setups might be clean and simple, they evoke countless emotions, running from the soft and romantic to the dark and moody. By turning their light source(s) a few degrees in either direction, photographers like Laura BC and Anna Lukenda have transformed the atmosphere of their portraits from muted and nostalgic to daring and eye-catching.
We reached out to seven talented portrait photographers to see how they achieved four classic lighting patterns—Rembrandt lighting, loop lighting, butterfly lighting, and split lighting—using a total of nine individual setups. While some setups are more complex than others, you don’t need to break the bank to create a similar effect or mood.
“Today, while I do own more lights, I still use just one-light setups most of the time,” Laura BC tells us.
In portraiture, Rembrandt lighting is defined by an inverted triangle that appears on the shadow side of the sitter’s face, while the other side of the face is illuminated.
You can achieve it using a one-light setup, with the light source placed at about a 45- to 60-degree angle to the side, angled down at your sitter at around 45 degrees. Adjust its position until the triangle appears.
Anna Lukenda used a studio strobe by Visico, placed on a beauty dish with diffusion, for the portrait above. She placed that main light on the right side, and then added a reflector on the left to fill in some of that shadow for a more subtle effect:
“I love this technique because it creates images that look dramatic yet natural.”
Katerina Klio’s portrait below uses a two-light setup, with the key light (modified with a beauty dish) creating that characteristic Rembrandt triangle.
“This light source was positioned from me at an angle of 45 degrees horizontally and 45 degrees upwards,” the artist remembers.
A second light, this one modified with a large octabox and placed about five meters behind Klio, simply opened up and softened some of those shadows.
“This second light was turned away from me and the model so that the light reflected from the far wall of the studio,” she adds. “This gave a very magical, almost imperceptible highlighting of the shadows.”
Loop lighting is similar to Rembrandt lighting, with one key difference: The nose still casts a shadow, but it doesn’t form a closed triangle on the cheek. Instead, you end up with a standalone, circular shadow.
“Loop lighting is easy to create with just a single light source and is flattering on most subjects,” Lukenda says.
For the portrait below, she used a Visico strobe, again paired with a beauty dish and diffuser, and placed it between 35-45 degrees to the side so the shadow didn’t completely close. She left out the reflector in this case to create more drama.
If you’re interested in introducing a second light, consider David Goldman’s portrait below, another ideal use of loop lighting, made with two Profoto lights.
“I can’t remember the exact lighting I used for this portrait, but as you can see in the reflection in the eye (always a giveaway), I used a beauty dish on a boom from the right, just above her head and a little off to the right (not much),” he tells us.
“Generally, behind me, I would have an umbrella, but hanging in front of that umbrella and touching the mettle pole of the umbrella, I’ll have a 216 roll of diffusion paper hanging off a C-stand arm (essentially dropped in front of the umbrella). I would tend to keep this about one to two stops below the key light (beauty dish) so if the beauty dish was around f/16, I’d have the fill at around f/8 or f/11.”
While still relatively simple (only two lights required), this setup was perfect for capturing a soft, feminine mood, while also providing some direction and shape.
Butterfly lighting refers to the butterfly-shaped shadow that appears just below the sitter’s nose when the key light is placed above the face, in front of the model (not at an angle to either side), and pointing downward at around 45 degrees (give or take).
“For this portrait above, I used one Speedlite 580EX II flash, located above the model’s head as she sat in the flowers,” Alexei Vladimir tells us. “Butterfly lighting is one of the most flattering light schemes for most faces. With one key light, this will create dramatic shadows under the cheeks, nose, and chin. In this case, the light emphasized all of the model’s facial features and added depth to the final shot.”
With butterfly lighting, a second fill light can be placed below the chin or behind the photographer. Vasily Pindyurin opted for two studio flashes for the portrait below, the key light (placed around 40-45 degrees above the face) modified with a 120cm octabox from Godox to create those big catchlights.
“For the fill light, I used a huge 150cm Selens umbrella softbox, standing behind my back. Finally, I added two black flags standing at both sides to cut any unnecessary light. I chose this lighting setup because I wanted to emphasize the model’s prominent facial features with her chin and cheekbones.”
In a split lighting scheme, half of the face is lit while the other half falls into shadow. You can place your key light perpendicular to your model (90 degrees) or adjust its angle slightly to taste.
To create the self-portrait below, Laura BC paired a strobe, the Pixapro Storm II 1200, with her favorite modifier, the Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox 100cm, to diffuse the light. She placed it on one side of her face at a 75-degree angle.
She remembers, “I also used a white reflector on the other side of my face to bounce the key light so the shadow wouldn’t be that harsh.”
Pro Tips for Better Portrait Lighting
Look for Those Catchlights
David Goldman’s portraits are recognizable for the glittering catchlights in the eyes, created with a beauty dish. “As a portrait photographer, I love eye contact, so even when it’s a beauty shot, my work usually kind of feels like a portrait, as well,” he says.
Refine the Angle and Position of the Face
For the self-portrait below, Laura BC used loop lighting, created using a continuous Godox SL60W LED and the Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox 100cm, placed about 45 degrees from her face. “Once I located the key light, I played with the angle of my face towards the light, as every little variation totally changes the vibe of the portrait,” she says. “I love how this one came out. The shadow on half of my face is very soft.”
Shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV camera with a 25-105 f4 IS II USM L lens at 105mm and f/5, with a shutter speed of 1/50 sec and ISO 400. License this image via Laura BC (laurabc.com, @laurabccom, @laurabc).
Put Some Distance Between Your Subject and Background
“When using one light, another important tip is to separate the subject from the background,” Laura BC adds. “Otherwise, the key light will also light the backdrop, making the overall portrait much flatter and less interesting.
“The model will stand out way more when being the main receiver of the light. Move the light around and see how it falls on the subject. To make the subject stand out and avoid very flat lighting, try to experiment with a 45-degree angle setup, and take it from there.”
Tailor Your Lighting to Your Model
“If you want to shoot a good portrait, you must always remember that every person has a unique appearance, and their features will demand different heights and positions for your key light, plus the possible use of a fill light,” Pindyurin says.
“Similarly, different faces require varying levels of hardness, softness, and contrast. Shooting more—and experimenting more—will help you analyze what works best for specific faces.”
Embrace Natural Light!
While all of the portraits featured thus far were created with help from artificial light, this one by Tessie Wallace, a prime example of loop lighting, is a notable exception.
“I actually just used full sun for this image,” the artist remembers. “It was a high school senior portrait session, so I had her stand in various ways to accent her beautiful features.
“I prefer to shoot on sunny days, either early in the morning or before/during sunset. I always try to avoid harsh sun and midday sun because it creates unflattering shadows on my clients’ faces.”
Natural light is a good starting point, as it’ll prepare you for all kinds of conditions. Experiment with shooting during the golden hour and blue hour, and see how warm and cold light influences the overall mood or atmosphere of your portraits.
License this cover image via Vasily Pindyurin/fStop.