The 5 Most Common Key Light Patterns in Portrait Photography

One of the most difficult parts of mastering studio lighting is memorizing all the photography jargon. You may hear terms like “loop lighting” or “Rembrandt lighting,” but can you explain what they mean and when to use them? If you’re not quite confident with lighting types, you’ll probably find this video pretty helpful. Pye from SLR Lounge presents a quick rundown of the five most commonly used lighting patterns for portrait photographers:

5 Common Portrait Lighting Patterns

1. Flat Lighting

Light comes straight at the subject from the same angle as the camera lens. Flat lighting fills in shadows and creates an undramatic look. It’s typically used for headshots and editorial shots.

flat portrait lighting

Flat Lighting

2. Butterfly Lighting

Also called “Paramount” lighting, butterfly lighting comes from in front of and above the subject’s face. This lighting pattern casts a butterfly-shaped shadow below the subject’s nose.

butterfly lighting pattern

Butterfly Lighting

A reflector placed below the subject’s face makes for a flattering clamshell lighting pattern.

3. Loop Lighting

With loop lighting, the subject is lit at an angle from above. The lighting pattern is characterized by a diagonal shadow coming down below and to the side of the subject’s nose.

loop lighting pattern

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting still fills in most of the shadows on the subject’s face, but it starts to create shape and add some drama to the portrait.

4. Rembrandt Lighting

Similar to loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting refers to lighting the subject from above the face and at an angle, but this time the angle is stronger. A triangle of light below one of the subject’s eyes is one of this lighting pattern’s defining characteristics.

rembrandt portrait lighting

Rembrandt Lighting

A large portion of the face is in shadow, so the look is quite dramatic and edgy.

5. Split Lighting

Split lighting comes directly from the side of the subject’s face and is the most dramatic of the five lighting patterns discussed here. Half of the face falls in shadow.

split lighting pattern

Split Lighting

Split lighting is frequently used with athletic portraits, as it brings out a lot of definition.

Of course, there’s always more to know, and there are certainly more than five ways to light a portrait, but hopefully this list clears up some confusion about the most common lighting setups.

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One response to “The 5 Most Common Key Light Patterns in Portrait Photography”

  1. Debbie says:

    What LED light are you using? Been considering buying one.

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