Short & Broad Lighting in Portrait Photography

The photo tip for today is: In your portrait photography, use “short lighting” and “broad lighting” patterns. Flat lighting will ruin your portrait photography! Caution… An on camera flash aimed at the subject will produce flat lighting. Bounce the flash off the walls, ceilings, off a reflector or something else. Never aim it directly at your subject.

"Portrait" captured by George Streng. (Click image to see more from George Streng.)

“Portrait” captured by George Streng. (Click image to see more from George Streng.)

I’ve discussed – many times – that you need to add shadows to your portrait photography to create depth and realism. It is the 3D effect of shadows that makes our photography come to life! If you use flat lighting – where the face is evenly lit and there are no shadows – your portraits will look dull, lifeless and uninteresting. Plus, it will make the subject’s face look wider and heavier – which is something worth avoiding.

On the other hand, flat lighting is a useful technique to tone down or eliminate acne or facial scars. But, there are other facial blemish removal alternatives. Acne and scars are among the few times that I recommend using Photoshop and “fixing” the photo after the fact. In other words, shoot using the best lighting pattern for your subject’s facial shape and remove the acne later!

The Main Portrait Lighting Patterns

The two main lighting patterns we should be using are “short lighting” and “broad lighting.” In previous portrait photography photo tips, I have said that you should have the subject’s head turned to about three-quarters to the camera. Straight on makes them look fatter, and more than a three-quarter turn is too much of a profile for most portraits.

Turning the head also makes one side closer to the camera than the other. Obviously, to create shadows, your light has to be hitting your subject from the side. This is what will create one bright side and one shadowed side. If the shadowed side is closest to the lens, it is called short lighting. If the shadowed side is furthest from the camera, it is called broad lighting.

Since the face is turned three-quarter to the side, creating short and broad lighting is simple, just move (or bounce) your light from one side to the other. By the way, don’t forget the sun. I’ve written this article using artificial light sources as my examples, but everything works with sunlight too! You can’t move the light, but you can move the model! It’s not about the type or the source of the light, but about the angles from which it is hitting the subject. (Try doing a portrait using a flashlight. It’s a fun experiment.)

How do we determine which lighting pattern to use?

Short lighting

  • where the shadowed side of the face is closest to the camera.
  • It is great for making faces look longer and more slender.
  • The ideas of what is beautiful changes in various countries, but for the most part a long slender face is considered more attractive than a round, wider one.
  • If your model’s face is wide, round, heavy… Use short lighting to visually slim it down.
"Portrait" captured by Slava Semenov. (Click image to see more from Slava Semenov.)

“Portrait” captured by Slava Semenov. (Click image to see more from Slava Semenov.)

Broad Lighting

  • If your subject’s face is already very narrow, short lighting could push it a bit too far. In this case, use broad lighting. It will – depending on the depth of shadow, angles and so on – visually eliminate the too thin look.
  • Another good use for broad lighting is if they have a facial defect of some sort – like one eye is bigger than the other, they have a scar, whatever – use a broad lighting pattern and put the defective area in the shadow!
  • With a broad lighting pattern the shadow will be to the rear and the added distance from the lens will further visually minimize areas that are not so photogenic. Plus, while minimizing the defect, it won’t look unnatural.

That’s it for today’s photo tip. In future photo tips we will discuss more about portrait photography lighting patterns but for now, practice using short lighting and broad lighting patterns. Grab a flashlight – have your model sitting in the dark and see what these patterns do to the face. Your portrait photography will dramatically improve, almost overnight!

About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes for He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. He philosophy is that learning photography is easy, if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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