7 Single Key Light Patterns

Lighting 101

The following definintions are the basics for lighting of peoples faces, these 5 basics are done with a single light source, it is better to practice these with a harse light as a diffused source will make the shadows softer and more desirable, Whereas a harsh lighting wil make the shadows more distinct and clear for the photographer. Harsh light is direct sunlight, or a single light source.

1. Flat Lighting

Flat Lighting Definition:
The first key (or primary/main) common lighting pattern that you should be familiar with is flat lighting. Flat lighting faces directly into the subject from the angle of the lens. Flat lighting is the least dramatic lighting pattern because it casts the least amount of shadows on the subject’s face.

Flat lighting
Flat lighting

Flat Lighting Placement:
Place your key light in front of the subject in the same direction where you will be shooting. Angle the light so it lays “flat” on the face. This makes it a very flattering light for portraits because it decreases wrinkles and imperfections. Also, when using flat light, remember to light from slightly above the subject’s face. Lighting from below will create an unnatural and unflattering look. This is often associated with on camera flash units.

Flat Lighting Common Uses:
Because this light is a very flattering light, flat lighting is used primarily in head shots and glamour editorial shots.

2. Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly Lighting Definition:
Butterfly Lighting (or Paramount Lighting as it is also known) comes directly in front and above the subject’s face. This creates shadows that are directly below the subject’s facial features. The most notable shadow, and where this lighting pattern gets its name, is from the butterfly shaped shadow just under the nose. It is also called “Paramount Lighting” because this lighting pattern was used heavily in the Paramount movie studio. This is a most beautiful lighting for women.

Butterfly Lighting
Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly Lighting Placement:
Start the key light in the flat light pattern, then raise the light up until you see the “butterfly” shaped shadow under your subject’s nose. Angle the face of your light so it points at your subject. The only difference between flat lighting and butterfly lighting is the height and angle of the Key Light. This creates the same flattering features as flat lighting but includes shadows underneath the nose and chin. Features are clearer due to more shadows in the different face lines.

Butterfly Lighting Common Uses:
This lighting pattern is usually used in beauty shots when a reflector is added underneath to soften the shadows.

3. Loop Lighting

Loop Lighting Definition:
Loop lighting is probably one of the most common key lighting patterns. From our Lighting 101 Workshop slide, we see that it falls between flattering flat light to dramatic split light. Loop Light is a nice middle ground where most of the face is still in light but you still have enough shadows to bring in some definition.

Loop Lighting
Loop Lighting

Loop Lighting Placement:
Loop Lighting evolves from Butterfly Lighting very simply. If you already know how to get to Butterfly lighting, all you need to do is move your light around the subject until you get roughly 25°-50° to the left or right and angled down to the subject’s face.

Loop Lighting Common Uses:
Because the light pattern comes from this angle, it creates a more dramatic look with a shadow that falls off the nose pointing down to one side. The subject will have more light on one side of their face. You can use this to your advantage if the subject has a “good” side or a preferred side of their face by lighting that side. Be aware that as your subject turns their head, the relative position of the shadows will change. You do need ot take care that the underside of the eyebrows and tops of the eyelids are nicely lit. The subject lifting or lowering their head can alter this without changing the light positions.

4. Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt Lighting Definition:
The master Dutch painter Rembrandt used this style of lighting in many of his paintings thus honouring this widely known lighting pattern in his name. Rembrandt lighting can be distinguished by half of the subject’s face in shadow except for triangle-shaped light on the cheekbone and eye. This style is more commonly used on men than women. The length and depth of the shadows and the direction of the light promote a certain moodiness in the image. Women can complain the images are “dark” and “brooding”

Rembrandt Lighting Placement:
From your Loop Lighting position, move your key light around the subject until the shadow of the nose is touching the shadow of the face. This primarily leaves one side of the face in shadow but keeps a triangle of light on the cheekbone and eye.

Rembrant Lighting
Rembrant Lighting

Rembrandt Lighting Common Uses:
Rembrandt is a stronger angle than loop lighting, making it look more dramatic. The more shadow we add to our subject and the more we turn our light away from flat lighting the more dramatic our lighting becomes. It is used heavily in all types of portrait photography including athletes. It is also the type of lighting we used in the video above!

5. Split Lighting

Split Lighting Definition:
The last lighting pattern we will discuss today is split lighting. Split lighting simply “splits” the subject’s face, lighting half of your subject’s face while leaving the other half in shadow. Because of the angle of light, there is no Rembrandt triangle, only shadow. Side lighting is dramatic and defining, especially with a single light and no fill light.

Split Lighting
Split Lighting

Split Lighting Placement:
Set up the key light 90° directly to the right or left side of the subject’s face. The line separating light and shadow will be down the middle of the nose and chin. This creates the most dramatic light and the least flattering light to use.

Split Lighting Common Uses:
If flat and loop lighting fills in wrinkles, split lighting will exaggerate them. This lighting pattern is used a lot in athletic portraits just for that purpose. It exaggerates their muscle definition and body features.

6. Broad and 7. Short Lighting

When the lights and camera are on the same side it is called Broad Lighting and when the camera is on the shaded, or opposite side to the lighting side, it is called short lighting.

Conclusion and Learn more

These are the basics, now remember in this demonstration all you see is just the key light. There are no secondary lights or modifiers in these images, but you can do so much more once you get these fundamentals down. Setting up your key light for what you want will save you time and much unneeded frustration in post. We guarantee that if you understand these 5 common key light patterns, you will instantly start to create more images the way you want to, whether they be flattering or dramatic

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