A studio setup allows you to be creative in ways you could never ever imagine, certainly not without the accessories that goes with it. There are a million different ways in which you can arrange your lights to create different moods for your photos. Artificial lights are thus the choice of professionals who want to be able to control every aspect of their photography. When we speak of artificial lights and studio photography, invariably a closely related aspect comes up for discussion; and that is –  different types of lighting techniques or arrangements.

An Introduction to Lighting techniques

Lighting techniques does not signify just types of lights, but how they are placed around the subject to create a particular mood in the image. There are several different arrangements that you can produce using one, two and three lights. For the most parts a three-light setup is more than enough for any beginner to shoot great images with. In certain situations you don’t even need that many lights. Let’s discuss a few very popular portrait lighting arrangements using one, two and three lights.

Rembrandt Lighting

Named after the famous Dutch painter who popularized this lighting setup, Rembrandt lighting is essentially a low-key lighting setup that uses a single light fired from about 45 ° from the subject’s face and from slightly in front of the face. The key element of this setup is the presence of a small triangle of light on the subject’s cheek that’s away from the light.

Rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt used this lighting technique to produce a majority of his portraits. This lighting setup tend to work better with roundish faces and specially those which have a pronounced cheek bone. This setup tend to flatter the face and make it appear a bit longer and sharper than it actually is. For already taller faces this technique will exaggerate features adversely.

The best thing about this setup is that you need only one piece of light source. For beginners just starting in artificial lighting, this is a great way to get initiated into a classic lighting setup with very little equipment. Just because you are using one light does not mean this is a poor man’s setup. This is a very powerful technique to create a moody and contrasty lighting arrangement for really dramatic portraits. This has been a favorite lighting pattern with Hollywood directors and works equally well with both male and female models.


Cross-lighting is an interesting arrangement and can be done both in studio and in natural lighting environments. It needs two lights – one large and one small to be arranged in just about a straight line with the subject. The larger light would be placed behind the subject and will work as a rim light for the scene. The smaller light, on the other hand, will be placed in front of the subject and will work as the key light.

There is one more aspect to cross-lighting and that is the background. The background plays an important role in the whole scheme of things. The brighter light needs to be fired from the area where the background is darkest. This invariably creates a bright rim light around the subject’s face and contrasts against the dark background. The smaller light would be fired from the area where the background is brightest and the face is away from the brighter light. For the background, that is if you are working in a studio environment I would prefer to use an additional light just to create that bright to shadow gradient that I need to contradict with the main light – back light power imbalance.

Cross-lighting can also be done in natural lighting conditions. As a matter of fact you only need one light (that is artificial) when you shoot outdoors. The sun works as your backlight, the powerful of the two lights. The strobe / flash works as the second light.

Butterfly Lighting

All of the lighting techniques being discussed here require only one or two lights at the most. The next lighting technique requires just one. This is a portrait lighting technique just like the remaining ones discussed in this article and one that is very popular with photographers who prefer a low-key lighting arrangement.

Butterfly lighting

Butterfly lighting is easily the most simple to set up and shoot with among all the lighting techniques discussed here. This lighting arrangement can be easily identified if you look closely at the nose of the subject being photographed. The distinguishing element of this lighting is the appearance of a small butterfly shaped shadow just under the nose. The light is placed right over the head of the model at a slight angle in front. The shadow of the nose falls just above the upper lip. In addition to that shadow will also form right underneath the chin.

A reflector is sometimes used in butterfly lighting to produce a catchlight. You could ask the subject to hold the reflector just out of the frame or ask an assistant to hold it for you in place.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee