Studio Lighting Made Easy

April 14, 2010

Photo Tips, Portrait

To a beginner, Studio Lighting is often looked at as difficult and unapproachable; when in fact it is quite easy. To make it easier to understand, I am going to break it down to its basic components.

Luckily for us we have a great starting point in which to begin learning; lighting patterns. There are six basic lighting patterns: Short, Broad, Split, Loop, Butterfly and Rembrandt (there are other subtle variations on these but we will stick with the basics for now). These six styles of lighting have been passed down for centuries from some of the world’s greatest painters and artists. Photographers have adapted an already well established science (if I may use that word) of lighting different types of facial structures. After all, we need to make sure make every person we photograph look their very best and that begins with lighting.

The very basics of Studio Lighting can be broken down to two types of light, the Main Light and the Fill Light. Your Main light is what determines your lighting pattern; the Fill light is what controls your Lighting Ratio (or the amount of contrast) in your image. The position of your Main Light controls how the light will fall on your subject, creating highlights and shadows. It is our job as photographers to photograph a three dimensional object on a two dimensional medium and still make sure our image has depth and dimension. We do this by controlling the highlights and shadows. Think of it this way “highlights project, shadows recede”. If we want to draw attention to a certain portion of the subject we make sure we add light to that area, if we want to draw the attention away we reduce the amount of light. This is what will give depth and dimension to your portraits.

The Fill Lights job is to control the Lighting Ratio. Lighting Ratio is the difference in exposure from our highlights to our shadows. Let’s say your highlights are one stop brighter than your shadows. That means there is twice as much light (since one stop is a doubling of light) thus giving us a 2:1 lighting ratio. This may sound difficult at first but think of it this way: the less difference between your highlights and your shadows the less contrast there will be in your image. It’s important to remember that you do not want your fill light to cast any shadows on your subject’s face, since it is our Main Lights job to create the highlights and shadows. If our Fill is also casting shadows, we will have contradicting shadows: and an awkwardly lit portrait.

There are obviously other types of light in a studio but these two are the foundation of studio lighting. I will go through and explain the different patterns of light and in doing so will cover the other types of light that you may use in the studio. This week we are going to cover Short Lighting.

Short Light is when your Main Light is illuminating the side of your subjects face AWAY from the camera. Short lighting is a wonderful “all around” lighting pattern that really does look good on most subjects. But it is a particularly good style to use on heavier subject or subjects that have a rounder face; it creates a slimming effect by lighting the narrow side of the face away from the camera.

You will notice on the image here the back of my subject’s hair is also lit. I used a type of light known as a RIM Light. A Rim Lights main function is to create separation from your subject and the background by adding light along the outer edge of your subject. Now look at my subject’s blonde hair, it didn’t need any additional separation from the black background but I wanted to add additional texture and dimension to the hair. To create this image I used a 36×48″ softbox on a Spiderlite TD5 as my Main Light, and a Spiderlite TD5 with a 12×36″ stripbank with an egg-crate grid as my Rim Light. I chose a stripbank since I only needed a small amount of light to run vertically along the back of my subject, and the egg-crate grid help to reduce the spread of light from what is normally a 105 degree angle out of a softbox down to just a 40 degree angle. This is important since I didn’t want any light to wrap around from my Rim light and contaminate my subjects face.

Now let’s talk about positioning. I first choose which side I wanted to light based on the part in my subject hair. My Main Light was placed at about a 45 degree angle from my subject’s right hand side. Had I put my Main Light on her Left side I would have cast a shadow from her hair onto her face, not attractive. So now I know I want to use short lighting and I have placed my Main Light on her right hand side. Next I need to determine how high I want my light. This is very important. Too high she will have raccoon eyes (shadows over her eyes cast by her eye brows) too low and the shadow from her nose will start to streak across her check (and no one wants to draws attention to their nose). I begin with the light too high for my subject and then slowly lower it. I am watching my subject’s eyes as I am lowering the light. Once I see the color in her eyes “pop” I know I have the correct height. I double check to make sure I have my shadows and highlights where I want them, and then I turn off the Main Light and turn on my Rim Light. It is important to set up each light individually so you can see exactly where the light is falling on your subject. I set the Rim Light directly behind my subject making sure there is no light spilling onto her face. As a Fill Light I chose to use a reflector. A reflector is often times a good choice for a Fill since it will just bring up the exposure value of your shadows. It is important to note that the Main Light and the Reflector always work in tandem with each other.

That’s it. Two lights, a reflector and we are done. Next week we will go over Broad and Split lighting.

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This post was written by:

- who has written 3 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Specializing in wedding and portrait photography John serves the NW Ohio area via a loft studio in downtown Toledo’s Historic Warehouse District. In 2008 John partnered with the F.J. Westcott Company as their Technical Representative. John still operates Optical Exposure Photography along with his downtown studio although he is now primarily shooting destination weddings all around the world. John also travels with Westcott teaching Lighting Seminars and speaking at photography events throughout the year. You can check out F.J. Westcott’s website at

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4 Responses to “Studio Lighting Made Easy”

  1. Thomas Emmerich Says:

    Thanks John. That is a nice portrait. One thing that would have helped is a diagram of your setup. I’m a little unsure of the placement of everything. How far away is the background? And camera settings would be helpful as well. Thanks again.


  2. susan hester Says:

    This is good info I have never seen it explained light this. Can u tell me where u use the reflector in this equation?

    Thank you for your time!!


  3. Florin Anghel Says:

    @susan hester: the fill light’s position depends on the main light’s. Considering the subject’s face to be in the 0 degrees direction, the fill light is positioned at the opposite angle from the main. For example, if you put the main light at a 45 degrees angle, the fill light (in this case the reflector) is also at a 45 degrees angle, but on the other side of the subject’s face. This way the fill light works exactly on the shadows created by the main light. That is, of course, if we’re talking about a symmetric subject. If the subject is a statue, or even a person in a… abnormal position, you’ll have to play with the lights a bit. This isn’t an exact science after all, it’s art.


  4. Trent Grasse Says:

    in fact there are only four lighting patterns

    split rembrant loop butterfly

    short and broad lighting are broader concepts not specific lighting patterns

    all split rembrant or loop lighting are also either short or broad

    butterfly isnt really either but would always seem kind of broad


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