8 Creative Lighting Setups for Portrait Photography
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. Single light setup
  2. Clamshell lighting
  3. Butterfly lighting
  4. Rembrandt lighting
  5. Loop lighting
  6. Split lighting
  7. Broad and short lighting
  8. Nighttime portrait lighting

Portrait photography is much like painting a masterpiece, but instead of brushes and oils, you use a camera and creative photography lighting setups. Great lighting can transform a good shot into an exceptional one. Whether you're a seasoned professional or a beginner just dipping your toes into the vast ocean of photography, understanding and mastering lighting setups is a game-changer. Here we will explore eight different lighting setups that you can use to take your portrait photography to a whole new level. So grab your camera, and let's light up the world of portraits!

Single Light Setup

Let's kick things off with the simplest yet effective setup — the single light setup. If you're new to the world of creative photography lighting setups, this is your perfect starting point. Don't let its simplicity fool you; with just one light, you can create stunning and dramatic portraits.

To get started with this setup, you need a single light source. This could be a studio light, a flash, or even a natural light source like a window. Place your light at a 45-degree angle from your subject to cast a soft, flattering light on their face. The result? A beautifully lit portrait with depth and dimension.

Pro tip: Use a reflector opposite the light source. This will bounce light back onto the darker side of your subject's face, gently filling in shadows and creating a more balanced look. Remember, in photography, it's all about playing with light and shadow to create depth and interest.

So, experiment, have fun, and see what you can create with just a single light. You might surprise yourself with the results. And remember, every professional photographer started somewhere. So, don’t be afraid to make mistakes — they're just stepping stones on your journey to mastering creative photography lighting setups.

Clamshell Lighting

Next on our list is the Clamshell lighting setup. This setup got its name from its appearance - it looks like an open clamshell. If you're looking to achieve those glamour magazine cover shots, then this is the setup for you.

Unlike the single light setup, the clamshell requires two light sources. One is placed above the subject and slightly to the front, acting as the main light. The second light, often less intense than the main one or diffused, is positioned below the subject's face, acting as a fill light. The result is an evenly illuminated face with minimal shadows, giving your subject a youthful and glowing look.

Pro tip: If you don't have a second light, don't worry. You can use a reflector instead. Just position it below your subject's face to bounce light back up, creating that signature clamshell effect.

Now it's your turn. Try out the clamshell setup and see how it transforms your portrait photography. Remember, the best way to learn is by doing. So, don't just read about these creative photography lighting setups, try them out for yourself. You'll be amazed at what a difference good lighting can make.

Butterfly Lighting

Let's flutter over to the next setup, the Butterfly lighting. This setup is named after the butterfly-shaped shadow that appears under the subject's nose when this lighting technique is used. It's a classic choice if you're aiming for a more dramatic, vintage Hollywood look in your portraits.

Setting up butterfly lighting involves positioning your main light directly in front of and above your subject. The light should be high enough to create that distinctive shadow under the nose, but not so high that it casts shadows in the subject's eyes. A reflector placed below the subject's face can bounce light back up to soften any harsh shadows.

Pro tip: The positioning of the light is key in this setup. Experiment with different heights and angles until you capture that perfect butterfly shadow. It might take a bit of time, but the end result is worth it.

Remember, the beauty of creative photography lighting setups like the butterfly lighting is in the details. So, don't rush it. Take your time to get the positioning right, and you'll end up with some stunning portraits.

Rembrandt Lighting

Moving on, let's shed some light on a technique that's been around for centuries—Rembrandt lighting. Yes, you guessed it right! This setup is named after the famous painter Rembrandt, who was known for his distinctive use of light and shadow in his artworks.

In the context of portrait photography, Rembrandt lighting creates a small, inverted triangle of light on the subject's cheek which is furthest from the light source. This lighting setup adds depth and dimension to the subject's face, making it an excellent choice for creating dramatic and moody portraits.

So, how do you set up Rembrandt lighting? You start by placing your main light at a 45-degree angle from your subject and slightly above their eye level. The key here is to adjust the light until it casts a shadow from the subject's nose that connects with the shadow from their cheek, creating that characteristic triangle.

Pro tip: To achieve the best results with Rembrandt lighting, use a diffuser or a softbox with your main light. This will help soften the light and create more natural-looking shadows.

Remember, the key to mastering these creative photography lighting setups is practice. So, don't be afraid to experiment with your lighting and have some fun along the way. Who knows, you might just capture some of your best portraits yet!

Loop Lighting

Next in our exploration of creative photography lighting setups is loop lighting. This popular and versatile setup gets its name from the distinctive loop-shaped shadow it creates under the subject's nose. It's a fantastic option when you're looking to add a touch of depth and contrast to your portraits without going too dramatic.

Setting up loop lighting is a bit of a balancing act, but don't worry—you'll get the hang of it. Start by placing your main light slightly above your subject's head and at a 45-degree angle. This should create a small shadow to the side of the nose that looks like a loop. The trick here is to keep the shadow small and subtle; if it reaches the corner of the mouth, it might start looking like split lighting instead.

Pro tip: Loop lighting works best with a single light source. If you need to fill in some shadows, consider using a reflector instead of adding another light. This will keep your setup simple and maintain the emphasis on the loop shadow.

Loop lighting might take some time to master, but trust me, it's worth the effort. It's a versatile lighting setup that can add a professional touch to your portraits. So grab your camera, set up your light, and give it a shot!

Split Lighting

Are you ready to experiment with something a bit more dramatic in your creative photography lighting setups? Then, let's dive into the world of split lighting. This setup is excellent for creating a strong, moody effect in your portraits.

Split lighting, as the name suggests, splits the face into two halves—one brightly lit, the other plunged in shadow. It's a powerful way to convey emotion and add depth to your compositions. Here's how you can achieve this effect:

Position your main light source to the side of your subject, shining directly across their face. The light should illuminate only one half of the face, while the other half remains in shadow. This setup can be a bit tricky to balance, but with some practice, you'll be creating stunning split lighting portraits in no time.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that split lighting can sometimes have a harsh effect, especially on people with angular features. To soften the look, consider using a diffuser or adjusting the angle of your light.

So, why not give split lighting a try? It could be just the technique you need to take your portrait photography to the next level.

Broad and Short Lighting

Next up on our list of creative photography lighting setups is a versatile technique known as broad and short lighting. Often used interchangeably, these two styles can add a unique touch to your portraits. They're all about controlling shadows and highlights to bring out the best in your subject's features.

Broad lighting works by illuminating the side of the face that's most visible to the camera. This creates a well-lit, open look, but it can also make faces appear wider. It's a good choice when you want to convey friendliness and openness.

On the other hand, short lighting illuminates the side of the face that's turned away from the camera. This results in a more shadowed, dramatic look. Short lighting is great for adding a sense of mystery or depth to your portraits.

The key to mastering broad and short lighting is to experiment with your light source's angle and distance. Remember, the goal is to illuminate your subject in a way that enhances their natural features and fits the mood of the photo.

Pro tip: A reflector can be your best friend when working with broad and short lighting. It can help you bounce light back onto your subject, reducing harsh shadows and creating a more balanced look.

With some practice, you'll find that broad and short lighting can offer a wealth of creative possibilities for your portrait photography. Why not give it a shot?

Nighttime Portrait Lighting

Let's wrap up our exploration of creative photography lighting setups with a challenge: nighttime portrait lighting. As the sun sets and the lights dim, it's time to see your subject in a whole new light—literally!

Nighttime portrait lighting can seem daunting, but with a few tricks up your sleeve, you can capture stunning portraits under the stars. The secret lies in balancing ambient light and artificial light sources. Here's how you can do it:

1. Use a Flash: The most straightforward approach to nighttime portraits is to use a flash. However, you should avoid pointing it directly at your subject. Instead, try bouncing it off a nearby wall or ceiling to create a softer, more natural-looking light.

2. Slow Down Your Shutter Speed: By using a slower shutter speed, you can allow more ambient light into your shot, giving your portraits a warm, natural glow. Just make sure your subject stays still, or you'll end up with motion blur.

3. Play with Light Sources: Street lamps, neon signs, car headlights—these can all serve as fantastic light sources for your nighttime portraits. Don't be afraid to get creative and experiment with different types of light!

Remember, nighttime photography is all about finding beauty in the darkness. So don't let the lack of natural light scare you away. With a bit of patience and creativity, you can capture some truly breathtaking shots under the night sky.

And there you have it—eight creative photography lighting setups to elevate your portrait photography. No matter what kind of look you're going for, there's a lighting setup out there that can help you achieve it. So grab your camera and start experimenting. Happy shooting!

If you enjoyed learning about creative lighting setups for portrait photography and want to further enhance your photography skills, check out the workshop 'Tips To Compose More Compelling Photos' by Austin James Jackson. In this workshop, you'll discover valuable tips and techniques to help you compose more captivating and visually appealing photographs.