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Classic Portrait Light

Learn how to use the four classical lighting patterns: Butterfly, Loop, Rembrandt and Split

When learning to craft beautifully lit portraits, there’s no better place to start than with classical lighting patterns. These lighting setups have laid the foundation for portraiture since long before photography existed, when master painters relied on them for ideal illumination of the face. There are four traditional lighting patterns: Butterfly, Loop, Rembrandt and Split. Here’s how to use these classical lighting patterns to craft beautiful portraits.

Broad vs. Narrow Lighting

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the classic patterns, it’s important to know that these patterns are always created by moving the light in relation to the face, not the camera. Ultimately, a key light can be positioned in one of two general ways—to create broad lighting or narrow lighting, also known as short lighting.

Broad lighting is when the light is positioned opposite the direction the subject’s nose is pointing so the cheek that’s directed toward the camera is in light, not in shadow. For instance, in broad lighting, if the subject is looking to camera-left, the key light is coming from camera-right. This illuminates a broader swath of face than the other style, short lighting. Short lighting is when the side of the face away from the camera is illuminated, while the cheek that faces the camera is in shadow.

Broad and short lighting can be employed for many different reasons, but two of the most notable reasons are to provide a slimming effect or to increase drama and mystery. With short lighting, less of the face is illuminated and, therefore, the face will appear narrower. Because the shadow side is more prominent to the camera with short lighting, it adds mystery and drama, as well. As you’re positioning the key light to form the lighting patterns outlined below, take note of the ways a broad or short lighting setup changes the impact of the portrait.



Butterfly Lighting

Named for the shape of the shadow that falls directly beneath the nose, butterfly lighting is a great way to make a pretty face look glamorous. In fact, butterfly lighting is also known as Paramount lighting, for the movie studio whose photographers made the style famous back in the golden age of Hollywood.

Butterfly lighting accentuates cheek bones and jaw lines, and works wonderfully with a subject in full face (turned directly to the camera). It may not be the ideal lighting for a weathered face (though it does minimize skin texture), but for making a beautiful face look glamorous, there’s practically nothing better.

To create a butterfly pattern, position the light source directly in front of and above the nose. A fairly high position is necessary to create the shadow below the nose and chin, but too high will make the shadows too long and remove the catchlight from the eyes. To check the position, note that the butterfly shadow should stop about halfway between the nose and the lip; if it touches the upper lip, the light is too high. Add a white reflector below the chin, and you’ve modified the butterfly pattern to make it clamshell lighting—a popular setup for beauty and glamour portraits.

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