Choosing Lighting Patterns

Sean McCormack

It’s human nature to stumble when attempting to master something. A guitar player might hit on a new discovery, such as an unknown scale. In time, they realize their own invention is well known, like a pentatonic scale worn onto an old blues guitar. It can be the same with lighting when you find a look you like. But if you know nothing about classical lighting, you’ll have no idea that you’re standing on the shoulders of the old masters.

America’s Next Top Model and Victoria’s Secret Photographer Russell James once said it was learning to light like these old masters that made the difference in his career; rather than play with fashion and trends, he learned his craft and that helped him break into the fashion industry.

Lighting patterns are easy to learn and this basic information can revolutionize how you see lighting. Not only that, but you’ll start to notice these patterns all over the place. From magazine covers to posters to albums, elements of these patterns influence most still photography today.

There are four main lighting patterns: butterfly, loop, Rembrandt, and split.

Broad and short lighting also help to shape faces with a slight mix of loop and Rembrandt lighting.

To show these patterns in the photos in this article, I used a beauty dish with a grid, which helps focus the light and gives a visible shadow line but still keeps the light soft. You can also use a speedlight, but the best way to see them is with a bare light bulb. For the sample photos in this article, I also used a Lastolite HiLite for a white background (which also acts as fill on some shots).

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting, named for the shape of the shadow cast under the nose of the subject, looks like a butterfly head-on in flight. Butterfly lighting is often used for beauty lighting, but it’s not just for females. Its alternate name, paramount lighting, stemmed from its popularity in photographing Hollywood stars.

Top: Butterfly lighting. Bottom: A set-up diagram for butterfly lighting.

George Hurrell and other photographers in the glamour era of Hollywood favoured this look. I highly recommend George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992 if you’re interested in seeing how this lighting pattern was used on the silver screen stars of the ’30s and ’40s.

To create butterfly lighting, put your light on a boom (a stand with an arm) and place it in line with you and the subject. The height of the light relative to your subject’s nose will determine the look. You can go for a smaller shadow under the nose, or even down to the halfway mark between the nose and lip. Beyond the lip, it starts to look a little nasty, and with hard contrasty light, you may lose detail.

Make sure that you also have catchlights—the reflection of light in the eyes that gives life to the subject—in both eyes. Lack of catchlights can lead to dead-looking eyes. 

Catchlights in the eyes

Loop Lighting

Like butterfly lighting, loop lighting is named for the appearance of the nose shadow that looks like a loop out from the nose. When done correctly, loop lighting has the bottom of the shadow roughly halfway between the top of the lip and the bottom of the nose.

Top: Loop lighting. Bottom: A behind-the-scenes shot showing loop lighting + diagram.

For loop lighting, move your light to the side and pay attention to the shadow. You should notice the nose shadow along the cheek, but it shouldn’t meet the cheek shadow. This type of lighting can also be referred to as open loop lighting. Closed loop is when the cheek shadow and nose shadow meet. Some may call this Rembrandt, but Rembrandt is slightly different (discussed below). Again, make sure you have catchlights in both eyes.

Loop lighting is probably the most commonly used off-camera flash look because it doesn’t require a boom. The standard advice for beginners in off-camera flash is to put the light 45° to the subject, angled down at 45° to create loop lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting

Where the nose shadow meets the cheek shadow is sometimes referred to as Rembrandt lighting, named after the painter. For practical purposes, that’s nearly true, but with true Rembrandt lighting, the light is usually up higher to emulate the main light in Rembrandt’s studio, which is rumoured to have come from a skylight.

The main feature of Rembrandt lighting is the patch of light on the cheek opposite your light; most often this look likes a triangle, but it depends on the face of the subject.

Top: Rembrandt lighting (notice the “Rembrandt Triangle”). Bottom: Rembrandt lighting setup.

To create Rembrandt lighting, move the light further around and slightly higher than your subject, keeping the catchlight in both eyes. The two goals here are to (1) make the nose and cheek shadow meet, and (2) look for the triangle of light. When done correctly, you’ll have classic Rembrandt lighting.

Split Lighting

The final pattern is called split lighting, aptly named because it splits the face in half, leaving one side dark. The album cover for With The Beatles (taken by Robert Freeman) is probably the most famous modern photo featuring this pattern, where each band member's face is only half-lit. 

Top: Split lighting. Bottom: Split lighting setup. 

To create split lighting, the light comes from a 90° off-camera position. Usually, the opposite side goes completely dark, but in the sample shot above, the background light added some fill.

Broad and Short Lighting

When the face is turned at an angle to the camera, it gets split into two sections. The widest part, from ear to nose, is called the broad part of the face, while the smaller section (from the nose across the back cheek) is referred to as the short side of the face.

Broad lighting is where light strikes the broad side of the face. It’s not the most flattering light for heavier people but is heavily used in fashion. Generally, broad light comes from the camera side of the subject.

Left: Lighting the broad side of the face. Right: Lighting the short side of the face.

Short lighting highlights the short side of the face, from the nose across the back cheek. It usually comes from the other side of the subject from the camera and is very dramatic. And the bonus? The shadows it creates have a slimming effect.

The photos below are a few examples of these patterns in my work. See if you can guess the pattern before you read the answer in the captions. 

Top left: Broad light is my fashion favourite.

Top right: Short lighting with Rembrandt is dramatic.

Bottom left: Butterfly light, with a reflector from below, is my go-to beauty look.

Bottom right: Split lighting works well on male musicians!   

This article provides the basics to help you get started with using lighting patterns, but this isn’t something you can absorb by reading; you need to practice using these setups so you can learn to see them. Make your own photographs and study the work of others—either in books of the masters or your favourite magazines—and I promise you’ll begin to recognize these lighting patterns.

The more you practice and study, the easier it becomes to make the best lighting choices for the people you photograph.

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of PHOTOGRAPH magazine. Want more like this? We've got you covered

Sean McCormack lives in Galway, Ireland. A photographer, author, and sound engineer, Sean's been behind the camera for 12+ years. He initially photographed musicians, then fell head over heels for landscapes before eventually moving to studio work. While photographing people is still his primary focus, his love for landscapes remains. Have Lightroom questions? Sean's an Adobe Community Professional and knows all things LR. For more about Sean, his work, or his LR knowledge, check out his website.


Craft & Technique Sean McCormack

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