Creating dramatic lighting patterns is easy to do with a strobe. You can be very deliberate with your strobe placement to mold the light and shadows, but investing in lighting gear isn’t for everyone. Thankfully you can mold natural light with your surrounding environment… and it’s free!
I think almost everyone knows how to pull off flat light and back light, but there are six more lighting patterns that every portrait photographer should know how to achieve. I converted all these images to black and white so you can better see the light and shadows.
Sometimes called side light. It’s the easiest to achieve, especially indoors. It creates an image that is split between light and shadow. I also love this lighting pattern for food photography.
Just set your subject parallel to a single light source and shoot.
This is my favorite lighting pattern and especially easy to do with kids. The area closest to the camera is only partially illuminated and the rest falls in the shadow.
Set your subject at a 45 degree angle towards a single light source, like a window.
I use this one the least, but it does work great for helping to smooth skin.
Set your subject 45 degrees away from your light source so the light illuminates the entire side of the face closest to the camera.
I used a building to my right to block the light and had her turn slightly towards it so the light would illuminate her face.
This type of light is really easy to achieve and flattering for portraits. I like to think of it as a nice balance between flat and short light. You’ll notice the shadows to the right and right below her nose giving it a little more depth.
The light source needs to be slightly higher than your subject and somewhere between 30-40 degrees.
I used a building to my right to block the light and had her turn towards me. The sun was setting behind the buildings (to my SW) at roughly 40 degrees.
This is another very flattering light pattern for portraits and consider it flat light’s prettier sister. It does a great job at smoothing skin, but is a little less dynamic than loop light. Butterfly light is sometimes called beauty light and leaves a small shadow directly below the nose.
Butterfly light is also really fantastic for newborn photography.
Position your subject directly in front of your light source with the light angled slightly downwards. In this case, the sun was setting directly behind the buildings behind me and created a very soft light.
This is one of my favorites for moody or very dramatic portraits.
Rembrandt lighting leaves a triangle shape of light below the eye on one side of the face. I like to think of it as a mix of split and short light, but it’s also a little more difficult to pull off (especially with kids).
Position the light at 45 degrees and slightly higher than your subject on one side and a reflector at 45 degrees on the other side.
I positioned her lower than the window and used a white upholstered chair as a reflector (since I couldn’t find mine.)
Creating dynamic portraits with natural light doesn’t have to be difficult and is a great way to practice before investing in strobes.