Basics of Studio Lighting Part 2: Angles of Light

Butterfly light is flattering to the subject.

Previously, we wrote about selecting your equipment for photography studio lighting setups. Now we will talk about how to place your lights.

Angles of light

There are certain angles of light that have been identified by photographers as the most flattering and therefor, the most conventionally used. These different setups have names based on the effect that the light gives to the model’s face.

Flat light is a soft light aimed directly at the model’s face from the same angle as the camera, with a very slight downward angle from above. Flat lighting creates minimal shadows. It is flattering for the model but it is not dramatic.

With butterfly lighting, raise the main light slightly until a small shadow appears under the subject’s nose. This lighting pattern gets its name because the shadow under the nose looks like a “butterfly”. Optionally, place a reflector under the models face aimed upwards to soften the shadows.

With loop lighting the main light is higher than the subjects face and placed on about a 45 degree angle. You can adjust the side angle slightly to bring out the subject’s best features. Loop lighting is slightly more dramatic than flat lighting.

With Rembrandt lighting, look for the triangle of light under the eye on the unlit side of the face.

Rembrandt lighting is still more dramatic than loop lighting, and is given its name because it was the lighting used by the famous painter in his portraits. The defining characteristic of Rembrandt lighting is the triangular shadow under the eye. Move the main light even further to the side than with loop lighting, until you see the triangle created under the eye. When using Rembrandt light, most of the unlit side of the face will fall into shadow, but you want to maintain some detail, so use a reflector or fill light, and make sure there is a sparkle in the eyes.

Finally, split lighting is when half of the subject’s face is in light and half of the subject’s face is in shadow. The line of shadow will occur right down the middle, between the eyes and along the nose. To achieve this, place your main light on a 90 degree side angle from the model’s face. Split lighting shows more details, including muscle tone for athletes as well as wrinkles. For this reason, it may or may not be appropriate to use this type of lighting. It can also give a dark spooky look if that’s what you are aiming for. You will have to decide if you want the far side of the face to be in complete darkness (very dramatic), or lit with a fill light or reflector. Split lighting is dramatic and artistic, so you probably shouldn’t use it for things like business headshots or family photos.

Remember that the fill light is generally aimed at the opposite side of the face as the main light; it is dimmer than the main light; and it is used to soften harsh shadows (not make them disappear entirely).

The back light (or hair light) is placed behind your model, usually on a 45 degree angle, and aims down on the model’s head from above to create a “halo” effect and separate their hair from the background.

Adding Other Lights

Once you have become comfortable with a 3-point lighting setup, you can experiment with these other types of light that are often used in studio setups.

Rim lights and kickers are similar to back lights and hair lights, and are added just behind the model and out of view. They can at be pointed at the side of the models face or used to further enhance the glow around the edge of their hair to really separate them from the background.

The background light is different from the back light. It is pointed at the backdrop itself, and creates even more depth in the photo.

Classic Hollywood studio lighting. Notice the sparkle in the actress’ eyes.

Most often seen in classic Hollywood glamour photographs, the eye light is directed right into the model’s eyes and creates a “sparkle”. Usually your main light serves this purpose but sometimes you may want to add an extra light just for this reason. Having some light reflected in the model’s eyes is important to make the photo feel alive and vibrant.

Practical lights
are small lights such as lamps that are part of the image.

As you play with the 3-point lighting setup you will start to develop your own style and preferences. Remember that photography is an art, but knowing the rules will help you break them properly. Some photographers prefer to have their fill light nearly as bright as their main light, so that their subject is lit all over with a soft, radiant glow and shadows are very minimal. Others will turn their fill light way down (or off entirely) to create a high contrast image with hard shadows, where half of the detail of the subject is lost in darkness. You may want to add coloured gels to some of your secondary lights to give the subject a vibrant highlight, or use warm, yellow-toned lights for a vintage look. After you’ve practised conventional studio lighting setups, consider what you’d like to express, research photographers who’s work you would like to imitate, and add your own unique touches to create an artistic look that is unique to you. Successful artists tend to have a signature style that people recognize and remember. However, photography lighting is an art so your personal approach will be all your own.

All images are licensed under a Creative Commons license.