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  • Professional photographers understand that it’s all about the light. Armed with some basic knowledge of the fundamental lighting patterns in photography, you can begin to bend light at will, and shoot like a pro studio photographer!

    Moving into studio lighting can be a scary move for many aspiring photographers. It always seems like a big investment of time, research, money, and effort. Well, the best way to start is to experiment with a single light source, whether that’s a flash/strobe, a continuous light, or a simple desk lamp, and start exploring the different lighting patterns explained below. You will quickly start to recognize the different characteristics of each setup and be on your way to crafting your own light in your photographs. And before you know it, you’ll be wondering what took you so long to jump in!

    Here is a great starter video that quickly explains (4 minutes!) five basic lighting patterns, or lighting schemes, by photographer Ed Verosky. He even briefly shows you how a little bit of “fill light” affects each pattern.


    There are four lighting patterns that are most commonly used.

    Split Lighting

    Yosef Adest - Week 1 (2011): Self Portrait

    Yosef Adest – Week 1 (2011): Self Portrait

    Split lighting is when the light illuminates half of your subject’s face, leaving the other half in the shadows. You can achieve this simply by placing the light source directly to the side of your subject’s face. This is ideal for more dramatic, gritty-looking shots.

    Split Lighting - www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Split Lighting – www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Rembrandt Lighting

    Self-Portrait  *oil on canvas


    Rembrandt Lighting is named after a certain famous artist, I forget his name… but you get this pattern by placing the light source above and roughly a 45-75 degree angle to the side of your subject. You can spot this technique by the triangle of light that appears next to the nose of your subject, opposite the light source. It’s ideal for dramatic portraits.

    Rembrandt Lighting - www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Rembrandt Lighting – www.lightingdiagrams.com/


    Powered by the Online Lighting Diagram Creator – www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Loop Lighting

    Yosef Adest - Week 1 (2013): Self Portrait

    Yosef Adest – Week 1 (2013): Self Portrait

    Similar to Rembrandt, the Loop light pattern is recognizable by a small shadow just underneath and to the side of the nose, creating a loop shape. It is achieved by placing the light source above your subject’s head and roughly 30-45 degrees to the side, a shallower angle than with Rembrandt. It is ideal for flattering portraits and is probably the most utilized lighting pattern.

    Loop Lighting - www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Loop Lighting – www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Butterfly Lighting

    Rudi B - Week 34 - Ginger (2014)

    Rudi B – Week 34 – Ginger (2014)

    Butterfly Lighting is the most popular lighting used for glamour and fashion photography. It will enhance the cheekbones and create soft light across the face. You can create this pattern by placing the light source above your subject and just behind or in front of the camera (facing down towards the model). You can recognize this pattern by a butterfly-type shadow directly underneath the nose, and a shadow under the chin. Many times (like in the image above) a reflector or fill light is used underneath to soften these shadows, which is called “clamshell lighting“.

    Butterfly Lighting - www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Butterfly Lighting – www.lightingdiagrams.com/

    Broad and Short Lighting

    These two general lighting patterns can supplement any of the above patterns. Broad Lighting is simply achieved by having your subject face towards the light, while Short Lighting is where the subject is faced away from the light.

    You can see some images that clearly show the difference, here.

    For a more in-depth breakdown, check out this amazing free video, by photographer Darlene Hildebrandt, who goes through all of these techniques in real-time, first using only one light source, and then using natural light with similar effects. Darlene gives some great overall tips, and it’s definitely worth the watch!

    Screenshot: Darlene Hildebrandt's Free Lesson on Portrait Lighting

    Screenshot: Darlene Hildebrandt’s Free Lesson on Portrait Lighting

    Instantly identify what techniques were used by simply looking at any photo

    What’s really important is how to reverse-engineer all these patterns. Meaning, you should be able to look at most photos, and be able to tell what technique the photographer used to shoot! Besides the very specific definitions above (eg – triangle of light is Rembrandt, shadow under the nose is Butterfly, etc..) there are generally 2 very distinct giveaways when looking at a photo, which will at least give you a sense of where the light was placed when the shot was taken.

    1. Direction of the shadows. If the shadows stretch across the left side of the subject’s face, there’s a good chance the light source was to the right of the subject! Shadows fall downward? That light was most probably placed above the subject.

    2. Catchlights. Look in the eyes – the catchlights are reflecting the light source, so if you see the catchlights on the top of the subject’s eyes, the light source was from above. If you see two or more catchlights, that means there was a multiple light setup.

    All of this goes for both studio lighting AND natural lighting.

    Try your hand at reverse engineering the photos below. Let us know what you think in the comments!

    Rudi Bishop - Week 6 (2014): Five Senses

    Rudi Bishop – Week 6 (2014): Five Senses

    Tzvi Cohen - Week 1 (2015): Self Portrait

    Tzvi Cohen – Week 1 (2015): Self Portrait

    Nechama Leitner - Week 48 (2014): Looks like this

    Nechama Leitner – Week 48 (2014): Looks like this

    Tzvi Cohen - Week 20 (2015): Forced Perspective

    Tzvi Cohen – Week 20 (2015): Forced Perspective

    Nechama Leitner - Week 1 (2015): Self Portrait

    Nechama Leitner – Week 1 (2015): Self Portrait

    Kái Jài - Week 3 (2015): Black and White

    Kái Jài – Week 3 (2015): Black and White

    Tzvi Cohen - Week 47 (2014): Portrait

    Tzvi Cohen – Week 47 (2014): Portrait

    For some more reverse-engineering fun, check out this amazing resource.




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