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Every photographer wants to know about 6 basic portrait lighting modes

In classic portrait photography, there are several fundamental principles of lighting that you need to know and control during the shooting process and understand which one to apply in order to convey the desired mood, the correct image or the most flattering picture of the model.

It is worth remembering these rules in order to easily follow them, and most importantly, to know when and how they can be violated. Learn these 6 rules – they will become your milestones on the way to a great portrait photography. And do not forget that the best training is to intersperse theory with practice.


What are lighting modes in portrait photography? We can say that this is a play of light and shadow, which can change the perception and shape of the face. In simple terms, what shape the shadow will lie on the face depends on the way of lighting. There are four most common foundations for lighting a person:

side lighting;
classic lighting;
Rembrandt lighting;
Two additional methods should be added to the main 4 types, which are more elements of the style and can be used simultaneously with the basic lighting modes in the portrait: this is wide and narrow lighting.
Let’s look at each type of lighting separately.

1. Side lighting (Split Lighting)

In this mode, the light “breaks” the face into two equal halves, one of which is in the light, and the second in the shadow. This type of lighting is more suitable for men, it is often used when shooting portraits of musicians or artists, because it gives drama to the portrait. There are no strict rules for applying this or that type of lighting; there are only recommendations based on average perception. You need to know these rules so that you can use them as your primary starting point.

To achieve this effect, you should put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind the head. The location of the light in relation to the subject depends on the shape of the person’s face. Watch the light fall on your face and adjust accordingly. Light from the shadow side should only reach the eyes and shape the face in such a way that a light-shadow border passes clearly in the middle. If, rotating around a person’s face, you see that light falls more on the cheek, it is quite possible that the model is simply not suitable for this scheme, in which there should be an ideal breakdown by light.

NOTE. Keep in mind that in order to maintain a consistent picture of the lighting, your light source should move depending on whether the model moves. Whether you are taking a front-shot, taking photographs of faces or even a profile, the light should “follow the pattern.” If the model simply turns its head, the whole picture will change. You must adjust the lighting by moving the source or turning the model slightly in the desired direction.

What is flare and why is it needed?

Pay attention to the reflection of the actual light source in the eyes of the model. Glare looks like white spots in the eyes of the child in the photo above. If you look closely, you can see the contours of the instruments that were used when shooting the portrait.

For example, a bright spot of a hexagon with a dark center is visible in the photo. This is the light that was used – the Fotokvant Hexagon-60 quick-folding softbox for a 60 cm on-camera flash.

This effect is called flare. Without glare, the eyes of the model become dark and look inconspicuous. When shooting, make sure that at least in one eye the glare is fully reflected. Please note that the flare also slightly changes the color of the iris and the brightness of the eyes as a whole, which enhances the feeling of vitality and gives shine to the eyes.

2. Classical lighting (Loop Lighting)

Such lighting is considered classic that creates a small shadow from the nose on the cheeks, while a light-shadow loop is formed. To get this, you need to position the illuminator slightly above eye level, and at an angle of about 30-45 degrees from the camera (depending on the person, you must learn to read people’s faces).

Look at this image and notice how the shadows fall. On the left and right you can see small shadows near the nose. They are always left, make sure that the shadow is slightly directed downward. To do this, place the light source not too high, as this can lead to the formation of unwanted shadows on the face and loss of glare in the eyes of the models.

Classical lighting is considered the most popular lighting model for portraiture, because the created pattern of light and shadows is the best and emphasizes the dignity of most people.

In the diagram, a black background denotes a strip of trees that is located behind a pair, while the sun is hiding behind the greenery. With the help of a white reflector, enough light fell on the face. If you slightly change its position, you can choose various lighting options.

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