Best Types of Lighting in Photography You Must Know for Amazing Portraits

Lighting is a crucial element in portrait photography, as it can significantly impact the mood and overall aesthetic of the image. As a portrait photographer, knowing the best types of lighting in photography can make a huge difference in the final result of your images. In this article, we will discuss some of the best lighting techniques for portrait photography, and also cover lighting sources including natural light, artificial light, and light modifiers.

4 Portrait Photography Lighting Techniques

Split Lighting

One of the most popular lighting setups for portrait photography is known as “split lighting.” This technique involves placing a light source on one side of the subject’s face, creating a line of light and shadow that runs down the center of the face. Split lighting is often used to create a dramatic, moody look, and can be achieved using a variety of light sources, including natural light, strobes, and continuous lighting.

Split lighting | Best types of lighting in photography

Loop Lighting 

Another common lighting setup for portrait photography is “loop lighting.” This technique involves placing the light source slightly above and to one side of the subject’s face, creating a small shadow under the nose. Loop lighting creates a more natural, softer look than split lighting, and is often used to create a more flattering portrait.

Loop lighting | Best types of lighting in photography


Rembrandt lighting

“Rembrandt lighting” is another popular lighting setup for portrait photography. This technique is named after the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt, who was known for using this type of lighting in his portraits. Rembrandt lighting involves placing the light source above and to one side of the subject’s face, creating a triangular shape of light on the cheek opposite the light source. This lighting technique is often used to create a sense of depth and dimension in the portrait.

Rembrant lighting | Best types of lighting in photography

Butterfly Lighting or Paramount lighting

Another lighting technique that is often used in portrait photography is “butterfly lighting.” Historically, some Hollywood actresses did not allow their photos to be taken unless it was butterfly lighting, this is why it is sometimes also referred to as “Paramount lighting”. This technique involves placing the light source above and directly in front of the subject’s face, creating a butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose. Butterfly lighting is often used to create a soft, ethereal look in the portrait. This type of lighting is most flattering for women, enhancing their cheekbones. 

Butterfly | Best types of lighting in photography

These 4 lighting techniques work well for portraits on their own, but you can also experiment with them using additional tools like reflectors and gobo lights to make the photographs more sophisticated and creative highlighting certain elements of the photo or creating more depth. In the next section, we will discuss the common tools that are used to create different types of lighting in photography. 

Types of Light Sources

Natural light

Natural light can be a great tool for any creative photoshoot, as it creates soft, flattering light. While this lighting is generally easy to work with, especially in cloudy or shadowy environments. However, photographers must be careful when working during certain hours of the day such as twilight or indirect sunlight, additional equipment is often needed to manipulate the light and create the best quality images. 

Natural light | Best Types of Lighting in Photography

One of the most popular (not to mention easy) techniques for using natural light is called “golden hour,” which refers to the period of time just before sunset or just after sunrise when the light is warm and soft. During this time, the sun is low in the sky, creating long shadows and a warm, golden glow. To take advantage of golden hour light, shoot your portraits outdoors during this time and position your subjects so that the light is coming from the side or behind them.

Another way to use natural light for portraits is to shoot indoors near windows or other sources of indirect light. This can create beautiful, soft, and even lighting that is perfect for portraits. Just be sure to watch out for harsh shadows, as they can be unflattering and distracting.

If you are a beginner natural lighting is the best type of lighting to experiment and practice with since it requires the least amount of equipment when starting out. 

Artificial light

Artificial light can be an excellent option for portrait photography, especially in situations where natural light is not available or not sufficient. Some common types of artificial light used in portrait photography include flash, studio strobes, and continuous lights.

Flashes are a popular choice for a creative photoshoot, as it allows you to add light to a scene quickly and easily. Flash can be used on or off-camera, and it can be modified with diffusers and other light modifiers to create softer, more flattering light.

Studio strobes are another popular option for portrait photography, as they offer a high level of control and versatility. Studio strobes can be used with various light modifiers, including softboxes, umbrellas, and beauty dishes, to create a range of lighting effects.

Continuous lights, also known as hot lights, are a type of artificial light that produces a constant beam of light. Continuous lights are a good choice for portrait photography because they allow you to see the effect of the light on your subject in real-time, making it easier to fine-tune your lighting setup.

Artificial light is commonly used in studios, though some lights can be taken to outdoor photoshoots as well. A con of this lighting equipment is that it requires more investment and storage, but the pros they are the most reliable sources of light that can be fully controlled and manipulated as needed by the photographer. 

Light modifiers

Light modifiers are tools that are used to alter the quality and direction of light in any type of photography. Some common types of light modifiers include softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, and reflectors.

Softboxes are a type of light modifier that diffuses light, creating a soft, even illumination (similar to natural window lighting) that is perfect for portrait photography. Softboxes come in various sizes and shapes and can be used with artificial and natural light sources. For head and shoulder portraits, round shapes are better as they create a naturally round reflection in the subject’s eye.

Umbrellas are another type of light modifier that diffuses light, creating a soft, even illumination. Umbrellas are a good choice for portrait photography because they are portable and easy to use.

Beauty dishes are a type of light modifier that creates a soft, directional light that is well-suited for portrait photography. Beauty dishes are a good choice for creating a defined, yet flattering, light on the face.

Reflectors are a type of light modifier that bounces light back onto the subject, filling in shadows and adding dimension to the image. Reflectors come in various sizes and colors and can be used with natural and artificial light sources. Compact and easily collapsible, they are often one of the easier pieces of equipment to travel with. 

These pieces of equipment can be used in studios and on outdoor portrait photoshoots, often they are used in conjunction with natural or artificial lighting. Though not always required, investing in one or more of these tools can greatly elevate and expands the possibilities of your lighting in photography. 

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Portrait Photography Lighting Conclusion 

In conclusion, lighting is a crucial element in photography, and there are many techniques and tools available to take your portrait photography to the next level and produce stunning, professional-quality images. Whether you’re working in a studio or on location, using natural light, artificial light, or light modifiers, the key is to experiment and find what works best for you and your photography clients. 

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Hi! I'm Mariya Maximtsev - a published Chicagoland portrait photographer. I love taking pictures of amazing families, and creating custom sessions for women and business owners!