Patterns of Light

Over the past week I have received a dozen or so emails from people asking me to help with such-and-such and this-and-that, all pertaining to portraiture and photography in general.  I decided since I was doing this 365 Project I would incorporate some lessons, say every Monday.  I think this will help those of you just learning the basics as well as some of the finer points of photography and will, in turn, help solidify the knowledge I have. One question I get a lot is to evaluate a portrait taken by the questioner.  9 out of 10 times I comment on light pattern.

Lighting patterns in portraiture is absolutely crucial!  It helps set the mood for the portrait and can, in the case of a non-model, help slim or shape someone in a more pleasant fashion.  Different lighting patterns do different things to different people.  It's up to the portrait photographer to discern which pattern is best for the individual sitting before their camera.

What do I mean by lighting pattern?  A lighting pattern is the play between shadow and highlight on a subject's face.  Certain light/shadow patterns can enhance, hide, mask, even warp a subject's features.  You can make them thinner, moodier, fatter (yup!), sadder, happier, angrier, more menacing, mysterious, etc, etc, etc, etc.

I sacrificed my diginity for the example below (with no benefit of retouching, mind you):

  1. Loop: The Loop pattern is called such by the way the shadow on the dark side of the face "loops" around the side of the nose following the cheek. There's highlight from the eye down to almost the chin.  This is one of the most common lighting patterns.  It's good for the majority of faces and is usually used for neutral moods.
  2. Rembrandt:  My most favorite pattern!  Much moodier, more dramatic lighting.  The main light is set high and off between a 45 and 60 angle depending on the subject.  The tell-tale sign of Rembrandt is the triangle of light below the shadow-side's eye.  Rembrandt himself used this lighting pattern a lot in his painting.  This pattern is typically good for guys and especially those with longish faces. Careful!  You could put BOTH eyes into shadow, which may or may not be your objective!
  3. Split-Light:  aka "Side Lighting".  Very dramatic lighting.  Main light is set at a 90 degree angle to the subject and shadows the opposite side of the face.  This lighting pattern is great for male or female, especially for those with long noses, long faces, or in need of masking.  Great for even business portraits providing you put enough fill light into the shadow area so they don't look shady.
  4. Butterfly:  aka "Hollywood Lighting".  This lighting pattern is mostly used on models and girls; basically anyone with really great bone structure, especially cheek and jaw bones.  It lights the whole face evenly except for a "butterfly" shaped pattern right below the nose.  The main light is set high and centered above camera.  A reflector is usually used below subject's chin to fill in the shadow area.  If your light isn't perfectly centered, then the pattern becomes the "loop" pattern.
  5. Short:  Short lighting is a lighting pattern that illuminates the part of the face further from the camera.   In other words, there is more shadow on the face than light; the nose is placed between the camera and the main light.  You can use any of the above lighting patterns with this.  The example shown is with the loop pattern.  Short lighting is utilized for drama and also for slimming down a face.
  6. Broad:  Broad lighting is a lighting pattern that illuminates the part of the face closer to the camera.  There's more light areas than dark; the nose is placed away from both the camera and light.  This is great for thin people, to give them more structure.  Careful!  You can add a few pounds to an unwitting subject!  Then again that might be your purpose ;)  The example shows broad lighting with Rembrandt pattern.
  7. Common Oops #1:  Light is too low.  You can't discern any real pattern here. The light is too low, creating a black smudge of shadow across the opposite side of the face.  Even if someone has a beautiful nose, it can create an odd shaped shadow. Solution: Raise the light or lower the subject!
  8. Common Oops #2 - Monster Lighting:  Light is low and lights upwards.  Great for scary movies and stories around the campfire, but horrible for anyone who wants to look good.  SOMETIMES, and I MEAN sometimes, this light is used in beauty shoots, but ONLY if the model's face can take it and there's almost equal illumination coming from above.  Use at your own peril!

Well, hope this helps!  Be conscious of where your light is at all times and what it is doing to your subject's face.  They will thank you in the end!