In this 8.5-minute video, we’ll explain the 5 primary key light patterns and the ‘why’ or purpose behind each of them. It’s all about “key” or main light positions and namely, understanding the why or purpose behind each one of these 5 primary lighting patterns.
Keep in mind that we can find each of these lighting patterns using natural light, or we can create them in the studio. First, let’s look at a little slide from the SLR Lounge workshop Lighting 1.
We’re going to go over the details in just a moment, but, for now, all I want you to think of is one thing. Shadows = Drama. On the left side of this slide, we have no shadows, and as we move to the right, we progressively have more shadows. When we want soft and flattering images, we are going to scoot towards the left side of the diagram, when we want more dramatic and edgy portraits, we’ll move to the right side.
Now, let’s jump to our first lighting pattern, Flat Lighting.
1. Flat Lighting
When we light the subject from the same angle as the camera, it’s referred to as flat lighting. Its purpose is to cast minimal shadows and fill the details of our skin to create a soft and flattering look. In fact, of all the lighting patterns, soft flat light is generally going to be the most flattering since it will fill lines and imperfections. For this reason, it’s often used for beauty and fashion work.
2. Butterfly Lighting
This light source is similar to flat light, the light source is still directly in front of the subject, and from the same angle as the lens. The difference is that it’s simply brought up to shoot down onto the subject’s face. It’s characterized by a bit more shadows directly under facial features and specifically a butterfly shadow that appears right under the nose. Fun fact: its nickname “paramount” comes from Paramount studios who often used to use this lighting technique to photograph their talent.
3. Loop Lighting
This is where we begin to move the angle of the light source about 25-50 degrees from the subject’s face. From this angle, we start to introduce a little more directional shadow on our subject. Keep in mind, as we introduce more shadows onto our subject, we can dictate the intensity of that shadow by the amount of fill light that we let into our scene. In this current slide, we have very little fill light so the shadows are more intense. But here, we have the exact same lighting patterns that are used over a soft fill light. The result is again, fewer shadows = less drama.
4. Rembrandt Lighting
Our light comes from above, but now at a stronger angle to the face where now we only see triangle shape light over the opposite cheek and eye. This visually interesting lighting pattern is named after the painter Rembrandt who’d frequently use this lighting pattern for his portraiture. For many of us (myself included), this is a photographer favorite.
5. Split Lighting
Split lighting is created when the light source comes directly from the side of our subject. It’s characterized by half of the face in light, versus half in shadow. Split lighting is not for the faint of heart, use this lighting pattern when your intention is to show heavy shadows or light vs dark type concepts.
We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson on composition photography. Catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next Friday!
P.S. SLR Lounge and Adorama have teamed up to bring you a new series of photography tutorials called “Master Your Craft” to be featured on Adorama’s YouTube Channel. Subscribe to see more of our videos on their channel throughout the next couple of months that will cover photography, lighting, posing, and editing education to help you hone your skills and master your craft.
About the author: Pye Jirsa is a wedding photographer based in Southern California and the co-founder of SLR Lounge. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Jirsa’s work here. This article was also published here.