Portrait Light Setup

Photography is a field that requires a lot of tools and equipment for the best outcome. You need to be on location, have the right lights in place, and then set them up just so. It can be complicated to get it all done the first time successfully, but with a few tips, it can be much easier.

The first step is to work out your desired light look and brightness. Once you have done this, you can start setting up your lights. To make this process easier, we have included an example of how each type of light will affect the final product:

Table of Contents

Let’s start by looking at different lighting styles:

1. Rembrandt’s triangle

Rembrandt’s triangle technique is named after the Baroque painter Rembrandt, since nearly all of his portraits are characterized by this famous lighting style. 

Create Rembrandt’s triangle lighting style by placing the light at a 45-degree angle to our subject or the object of the shot (with the camera facing right in front). One part of the face is perfectly illuminated while the other is shaded, forming the “triangle of light” just below the model’s eye on the part of the face that’s in the shadow.

Rembrandt's triangle technique
Rembrandt’s triangle technique

2. Butterfly

This lighting style is created by placing the light just behind the camera, in front of our subject but from above. Here’s what it looks like:

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

Its name comes from the shadow under the nose that resembles a butterfly. I really like this type of lighting because it softens the model’s face.

Now if you don’t like the shadows that form under the chin, around the neck area or what is known as “the double chin,” there’s a simple solution: use a reflector.

Wait, you don’t have a reflector?

No worries, neither do I!

You can create your own reflector with the following materials: a large sheet of cardboard, some tape, and aluminum foil. It’s really easy to make: wrap one side of the cardboard with aluminum foil and fix it in place with tape. Check it out! Your homemade reflector is done:

When shooting, you’ll be able to reflect the light coming from the lamp above towards the person from below to achieve this result:

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

This is known as “clamshell lighting” because it creates the shape of a clam from the lamp above, the reflector below, and the subject in the middle.

3. Side

As the name implies, side lighting consists of placing the lamp entirely on one side and illuminating a single part of the subject’s face. The other part remains in darkness:

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of this type of lighting. But if your goal is to generate a bit of mystery in your shot or portrait, illuminating only half of the face can help.

You can also take some very creative photos if you ask the person pictured to look fully into the light source. The results can give photos a certain intensity:

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

4. Zenith

Placing the lamp above (or on top of) our subject is known as zenith lighting. It’s certainly one of my favorites.

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

This technique is used a lot in cinema. You can see it in movies like The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) or The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) to name just two out of thousands of examples. In the case of The Godfather, its usage is almost over the top as you notice how all the actors are being lit from above. By doing so, Coppola managed to deepen the shadows around the eyes, darken the looks, and increase the feelings of mystery and emptiness in these characters corrupted by the mafia and crime.

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

5. Backlight

As the name suggests, this is when we place the light completely behind the subject and we don’t have any type of frontal lighting.

These techniques will help you achieve different types of lighting using a single lamp. Read to learn?

Although the idea of taking photos “against the light” isn’t very popular, it can create very interesting lighting that generates an effect of intrigue or mystery.

In the end, it all depends on what you want to do. If this is the effect you were looking for, don’t think twice: go for the backlight.

6. Personal trick

To finish, here’s a personal favourite for when I have a just one lamp in a closed place (like a room without windows), and I need a lot of light. The effect is created by completely removing the diffuser from the lamp and reflecting all the light off the white walls and even parts of the ceiling.

When using this trick, you’re going to light up absolutely everything. But you’ll hardly notice it because the lighting effect will have a very natural feel. It’s as if the light is coming from a window, reflecting off the entire wall and ceiling.

The result is a very soft light projected against the wall or towards the ceiling, as if a heavenly light was “raining down” on your subject.

These are my 6 tips for creating different types of illumination with a single lamp. I hope they serve you well and help you capture some incredible images.

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