Portrait photography, especially when we talk about studio portrait photography, as a genre, is heavily dependent on lighting. Though there are two different aspects to shooting portraits, first lighting and then posing, they evidently both strive to make the subject look at his/her best. In this tutorial we shall be looking at the basic setups for a studio portrait session using artificial lights.

How many lights do I need?

Photography Lighting Rembrandt

When we talk about studio lights we tend to think of large hexagonal or rectangular lights arranged in a complex pattern. One thing about lighting is, you can really splurge if you want to. There is no end to how much you can actually end up buying. On the other hand you can also make beautiful images just using a single light. As a beginner, you will need at least one light to start with. When you have mastered the one light setups, and absolutely need additional lights to create better images, go for it.

When setting up your key light consider the following aspects –

What is the purpose? Is it a simple passport photo session or a corporate head shot or a yearbook photo or something more? Not all studio portrait sessions are supposed to be gloomy and tight. You could also create a fun look by incorporating extra lights, interesting posing and a bright and cheerful background. On the other hand, if you want a more contrasty look go for side lighting. Split or partial lighting is a setup that really works well when you want a contrasty portrait.

Harsh light and soft light

You need to know something about harshness of light here. Depending on how far or close the source of light is, it would be harsher or soother. For really contrasty look place the light further away from the subject. Don’t use a fill light. You may want to also switch to monochrome. For more uniformly lit portraits place the light closer to the subject and most definitely use a fill-light.


Catchlight is another term that you need to know. Catchlight is basically a reflection of the key light on the subject’s eyes. Check the image above of the child. It could also be the fill-light depending on which one is in front of the subject. Catchlight can also be created by using a reflector. Catchlights impart that much needed spark, you can say, in an otherwise two-dimensional flat image.


Now, most professional photographers use a minimum of three lights when making portrait images. These are the key light, the fill light and the rim light. The key light is the main light which illuminates the subject’s face. This is the light that sets the mood of the image as well as create proportions.


The fill-light is used to balance the exposure as required and accentuates the dimensional lighting initiated by the key light. The rim light is used to create subject separation from the background.
Speaking of subject separation, another type of light used by photographers, especially when they are shooting at a location and when they are required to integrate the workplace, etc., is the background light.

Lighting arrangements

Apart from the many different types of lights there are scores of different patterns in which you can arrange these lights when making portrait images. Thus, in this article we shall be looking at lighting arrangements / pattern such as loop lighting, butterfly, Rembrandt and a few more. Think of lighting arrangements as an arrangement of instruments in an orchestra. You the photographer is the maestro conducting it.

Split lighting

One of the easiest lighting setup and requiring only a single light, split lighting allows you to divide the subject’s face into two sides, one prominently illuminated and the other in relative shadow. The light is placed at a right angle to the camera, almost at the same plane as the subject’s face, just out of the frame. Depending on the position of the light source from the subject the shadow can be subtle or harsh.

Butterfly lighting

Butterfly lighting also requires just a single light. It is identified by the small butterfly shaped shadow just below the nose of the subject. The light is placed higher up in relation to the subject’s head and at a slight tilt towards the camera. The exact position will vary depending on the face, feel free to make changes till you get it right. Use the above image for reference.

Loop lighting

This lighting arrangement, as the name suggests is identified by the loop-shaped shadow on the cheek of the subject which is away from the light. Invariably, you will have to place the light at an acute angle to the subject’s face and then adjusting as per the shape of the face. In the above image can you spot the small loop shaped shadow just on the right of the nose (camera left)?

Rembrandt lighting

This is a very popular lighting arrangement and one that is used by a lot of Hollywood directors. It is named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt whose paintings reflected this lighting arrangement. Look closely and you will find that the shadow of the nose merges with that of the shadow on the right cheek. This is an indicator of Rembrandt lighting. The left eye has two catchlights. One is towards the upper left indicating it is from the key light which is set higher towards the camera right. The other is probably from a fill-light or a reflector that is in front of the subject and is throwing some light back on to the subject’s face. Incidentally the first image in this article also showcases Rembrandt lighting.

Ben Novoselsky

CEO and Founder at Phowd.com
Entrepreneur, geek, photo enthusiast.
Ben Novoselsky

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