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The Importance of Light: Classic Portrait Lighting Patterns


Light is one of the most powerful tools available to artists for creating depth and mood in imagery. Great artists know good light when they see it and they know how to create and modify light when they need to.

Professional portraitists throughout the centuries have generally chosen to use lighting that is flattering to the subjects they paint or photograph. Common sense tells us that most people want to look as attractive as possible and lighting is a big part of making that happen. More people are likely to purchase portraits of them selves when they like the way they look.

Historical portrait lighting has been studied and distilled into four classical lighting patterns that today are widely used by both painters and photographers. I’ll show you what they look like, give you the basic rules of each and then tell you how to modify them to suit each of your subjects perfectly. I’ll be referring to the Five Lights of Nature, so if you have not read that article, you might want to familiarize yourself with them so you can learn to see and identify them in imagery.

In general, portrait lighting should come from above. The general rule is that the source light should be placed at a 45 degree angle up from the tip of the subject’s nose.

However, other rules state that the light should illuminate the subject’s eyes and the shadow from the nose should be cast pleasingly in the upper lip area but not overlap the lips. This means that the brow bone structure and length of the nose along with other unique aspects of your subject’s bone and facial structure dictate that the height of the source light may be slightly raised or lowered in order to create the best compromise of having light in the eyes and a nice looking shadow upon the upper lip area. Whew!

Once the height is selected, the direction may be chosen. Faces look wider or narrower depending on how much of the face is lit by the source light, so experiment a bit until you find the pattern that’s perfect for the subject at hand.

Butterfly Lighting

The light source is positioned above, directly in front of the face. Specular highlights can be seen on the forehead, eyelids, bridge of the nose, tip of the nose, cheeks, upper lip, lower lip and chin. Shaded sides are located under the eyebrows contouring the eyelid area, under the eyes, the sides of the nose, under the tip of the nose, softly under the cheeks and wrapping under the cheekbones. The rest of the skin tone is diffused highlight. Reflected light can be seen around the nostrils and edging the jaw of the subject, bounced in from below, probably the mannequin’s body. The shadows are cast by the headdress upon the forehead, the eyelashes upon the under eye area, the nose upon the upper lip area and the head upon the neck.

The key to proper Butterfly Lighting is to have the shadow that the nose casts upon the upper lip area to be centered under the nose perfectly. Notice that the shadow does not overlap the lip, rather it allows for pretty specular highlights to accentuate the bow shape of the lip. It is not remembered who named this light, likely a photographer, but it is so named because the shape of the nose shadow resembles a butterfly.

Butterfly lighting is considered to be “flat” lighting because it fully features only two of the Five Lights of Nature, the specular highlights and diffused highlights. Most of the shaded sides are behind the subject, as are most of the reflected lights and shadows. This style of lighting accentuates the eyes and cheekbones, makes the face look as wide as possible and minimizes blemishes and wrinkles. It is considered a contemporary or fashion style of lighting but may be used on any face where the characteristics of this lighting pattern are desired.

Loop Lighting

The second classical lighting pattern is called Loop Lighting because the shadow that the nose casts upon the upper lip area is loop shaped. The source light in this image is coming in from the left and if you imagine a clock face in front of the subject’s head, the placement is approximately where the 11 would be. Notice that the specular highlights, pointing to the source light, are also at the 11 o’clock position on each feature of the face. The shaded side of each feature is opposite the source light – on the right side of the nose and mask of the face. Shadows from the eyelashes are cast down and towards the right as are the shadows from the nose and head.

Loop lighting is the easiest style of portrait lighting to use. Widely used in the photography industry by event photographers and others that have to work quickly, it is flattering to almost every face, and doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate in order to look good.

If you have two people in the same image, you can create Butterfly Lighting on one person and then Loop Lighting on the other simply by having the second subject turn their head until the loop shaped nose shadow appears on their upper lip area. It is generally considered more artistic when portraying multiple people in a single image to have their heads turned in different directions so seeing the light accurately according to lighting pattern becomes pretty important when the goal is to have everyone looking great!

Rembrandt Lighting

This Grande Dame of classical portrait lighting is named after the painter Rembrandt, though oddly enough, he doesn’t appear to have used it often. It is considered to be the THE classic portrait lighting pattern and is used by many fine art portraitists. It’s a little more difficult to set up because there are so many details involved but it is a beautiful lighting style. It is the most dimensional lighting pattern because it utilizes most fully all Five Lights of Nature.

The source light has been moved over a little further to the left from center now (say, 10 o’clock) forcing the nose to cast a longer shadow onto the shaded side of the subject’s face, and bringing the shaded side of the mask of the face around more from the right, intersecting the shadow from the nose. This creates a beautiful triangle of light on the shaded side of the subject’s face, a lovely light in the eyes and the beautiful shape of shadow skimming over the lips.

It is important to keep the eyes illuminated. Please notice that the edge of the shaded side of the nose does not overlap the inside corner of the eye on the right side of the image. Nor does the shaded side of the mask of the face overlap the outside corner of that eye. These are details that are easily overlooked, and depending on the subject’s bone structure may be a hard lighting pattern to set up. In the event, for instance, the subject has a very pronounced bridge of the nose it might be impossible to keep the shaded side of the nose from overlapping the inside corner of the eye. If the subject has a wide face and a flat nose, it might be impossible to get the shadow from the nose to meet up with the shaded side of the face. Perhaps in these instances it might be advised to try a different lighting style.

NOTE: Photographers also refer to this lighting pattern as Short Lighting and Broad Lighting because they do not always photograph the full front view of the face. Broad Light makes the face look wider; Short Light makes the face look narrower. The lighting is the same as in the full face view; the artist just moved from one side of the subject to the other.

Split Lighting

Split lighting is easy to set up: just light exactly half of the face. Imagine the source light at 9 o’clock. Split lighting is the strongest portrait light and gives the subject a lot of attitude, but it doesn’t look good on everyone so it’s important to choose the right subject for it. Be careful when thinking of using it on older people because it makes them look even older.

In the past it has been called a Masculine Light but it is preferred to give light emotion rather than gender. Split light is strong as opposed to gentle. Some little girls have strong attitude – some men are very gentle. Feel free to choose lighting styles that accentuate the natures of the subjects you are portraying.

It is important to note that when using split lighting that there will not be a specular highlight in the subject’s eye on the shaded side of the face. Sometimes artists try to put one there, but it never looks natural. Another option is to add some reflected light in the iris of the eye – opposite the source light in order to accentuate the eye in a more believable way.

Profile Lighting

Classical profile lighting can be any of the previous lighting styles. The lighting is set up exactly as described above, but the artist chooses to portray only one side of the subject’s face. In this illustration, the shaded side of the subject’s face is being viewed with two styles of lighting: split lighting on the left and Rembrandt lighting on the right.

Once the basics of classical portrait lighting have been mastered, they may be modified as desired. Try moving the source light higher or lower to get the best light into the subject’s eyes and the most flattering path of nose shadow in the upper lip area. Move the light slightly right or left in order to place the edges of shaded sides where they look the best, again being careful to see light in the eyes.

Mastering the basics gives artists the ability to create with knowledge instead of luck. It’s the difference between art and accidents. Beyond this article is the option to learn how to choose the gradient quality and ratio of contrast between the specular highlight and shaded side, and, after that, how to work with multiple light sources.

Consider it a grand adventure, one that you can’t help but come out of smarter than you were before! The moment you “see the light” nothing looks the same as it did before! Everything looks more dimensional, more sparkling, more textured and more interesting than ever, and you’ll want to capture it in every piece you create!

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 


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