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Basic Lighting Patterns

When lighting people for portraits, some basic lighting patterns will give you a good starting point. All of these patterns need to be adjusted for your individual subjects, however, as no two faces are exactly the same. In Chapter 1, I talked about the basic directions that light travels. Now we’ll use that information to fine-tune the placement of the lights to create pleasing light patterns.

Rembrandt Lighting

The classic lighting pattern for portraits is Rembrandt lighting, named for the seventeen-century Dutch painter. To mimic Rembrandt’s signature use of light and shadows, place your main light high and to one side of the subject at about a 45-degree angle and position the subject facing forward toward the camera. It doesn’t really matter which side the light is on. You can use a reflector on the other side to open up the shadows a little. The important feature in Rembrandt lighting is the triangle-shaped area of light underneath the eye. One side of the face (the one facing the main light) is well lit, while the other side is in deeper shadows with the triangle under the eye on the darker side created by the shadow of the nose on the cheek. The classic look is for the triangle under the eye to be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye. For example, notice, the triangle shape under the eye on the shadow side of the face in Figure 12.3. I took this portrait with one Speedlight off to the side in a softbox, which created a softer light and shadows with a more gradual transition (Figure 12.4).

Figure 12.3

Figure 12.3 Rembrandt lighting produces a characteristic triangle shape under the eye on the shadow side of the face.

NIKON D750 ISO 320 1/250 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.4

Figure 12.4 You can see the setup of the softbox over to the side and placed at approximately 45 degrees from the subject.

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting produces a small shadow of the subject’s nose on the shadow side of the face. The light needs to be placed at about 30 degrees off to the side of the camera and higher than the subject’s eye height so that the shadow falls to the side and down. Adjusting the angle of the light changes the way the shadow falls, and for this pattern the light needs more of a downward angle rather than falling across the face as in Rembrandt lighting. Although you can use a second light or a reflector to open up the shadows, be sure that the light is just a little fill light and does not create a second set of shadows on the face. As you can see in Figure 12.5, the small shadow created by the light striking the nose doesn’t travel under the eye but instead is close to the nose. With a loop-lighting scheme, the placement of the light also creates a more open photo with less of the shadow side of her face in darkness. This portrait was taken with a single Speedlight placed in a small softbox off to the side (Figure 12.6).

Figure 12.5

Figure 12.5 Adjusting the light depending on the facial features is important. Here the small nose creates a small shadow because of the angle of the light.

NIKON D750 ISO 200 1/250 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.6

Figure 12.6 The SB-910 is placed in a softbox off to the side, but the angle is less than for the Rembrandt lighting in the previous example. Moving the light closer to the camera changes the angle of the shadow on the subject’s cheek.

Butterfly Lighting

Named for the butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose, the butterfly lighting pattern is created when the light is above and in line with the camera. This type of lighting creates a brighter area on the forehead, upper cheeks, and bridge of the nose. You also can place a reflector in front of and under the subject’s face to bounce some of the light into the eyes and to open up the shadows a little bit. For Figure 12.7, I used a single SB-910 in a softbox, placing it in front of and above the subject with the light at a downward angle. The subject held a silver reflector facing up to help open the shadows (Figure 12.8).

Figure 12.7

Figure 12.7 For the butterfly lighting in this portrait, I used one Speedlight in front and above the subject. A silver reflector bounced the light up into the face, which helped open up the shadows under the chin.

NIKON D750 ISO 200 1/250 SEC. F/4.5

Figure 12.8

Figure 12.8 Positioned in line with the subject and camera, the SB-910 in the softbox is up high but aimed downward. The silver reflector is placed to bounce the light up and into the underside of the face, opening up the shadows but not overpowering the main light.

Sometimes referred to as Paramount lighting, butterfly lighting is common in fashion and glamour because it tends to work well for woman with high cheekbones and thinner faces. This lighting is more feminine than masculine and more suited to woman than men, however. It tends to make the eye sockets on men look too deep.

Split Lighting

In a split lighting pattern, the main light is placed off to the side of the subject at about 90 degrees and positioned at face height or slightly above. The subject looks straight on at the camera. This arrangement lights up half the face and leaves the other half in shadows. Split lighting can help to narrow a face. You can adjust this lighting to create a dramatic portrait with half the face in deep shadows or, by using a fill light to brighten up the shadow side, to be more subtle. Even if you use a fill light, however, you still want a distinct split in the lighting with the transition being right down the middle of the face. In Figure 12.9 you can see the use of a single Speedlight at a right angle to the subject lights up one side of the face and leaves the other side in deep shadow. Figure 12.10 illustrates the setup I used.

Figure 12.9

Figure 12.9 I photographed Sam with a single Speedlight off to his right, lighting up the right side of his face while leaving the left side in deep shadows.

NIKON D750 ISO 200 1/250 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.10

Figure 12.10 One SB-910 placed in a softbox at a 90-degree angle to the subject creates the split lighting pattern.

Broad and Short Lighting

In all the previous lighting patterns, the subject is looking directly at the camera, but this is not always optimal because it can make the subject look bigger and can feel like a passport photo or driver’s license. The solution is to have the subject turn his or her head about three-quarters toward the camera, which positions one side of the person’s face closer the camera. If the larger side of the face is in the bright light and the shorter side of the face in shadows, that’s called broad lighting. When the shorter side of the face is brightly lit, then the pattern is called short lighting.

In Figure 12.11 you can see that the short side of the face is well lit and the broad side of the face is in heavy shadows created by the combination of the light placement and the turn of the head. Figure 12.12 shows the lighting diagram for the setup used for the short side lighting.

Figure 12.11

Figure 12.11 For this portrait, the short side of the face, that is, the side turned away from the camera, is brightly lit.

NIKON D700 ISO 200 1/250 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.12

Figure 12.12 This lighting diagram shows the setup for the short side lighting used in Figure 12.11.

In Figure 12.13 the broad side of the face is lit while the short side is in shadows. To open up those shadows, I placed a silver reflector on the short side to bounce some of the light back, as shown in the lighting diagram for this photo (Figure 12.14).

Figure 12.13

Figure 12.13 The light was placed so that the long side of the face was lit and the short side had more shadows. The shadows are not very deep in this photo because a reflector was used to add some light to the short side of the face.

NIKON D4 ISO 100 1/250 SEC. F/4.5

Figure 12.14

Figure 12.14 This is the lighting diagram for the setup used in Figure 12.13.

The placement of the light depends on which way the subject is facing and which side of the face you want lit versus which side you want in shadows. Short lighting can help to slim a fuller face, while broad lighting can help if the subject has a thin face. This type of lighting can also be used to hide any facial issues that the subject might have. A scar or case of acne can be minimized by placing hiding it on the shadow side.

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