portrait lighting setups

4 Easy And Awesome Portrait Lighting Setups You Can Shoot With A Single Light

portrait lighting setupsLearning studio lighting can be overwhelming, but with help, it can become much easier to grasp. Upcoming photographers believe that in order to create the best portrait, you need to have the best gear and the multiple light sources. That’s not necessarily true considering there are great photos that were taken with only one light source. In this post, we’re going to show you how to do just that. Read on as we explore four different portrait lighting setups you can easily pull off using just minimal equipment.

The Essential Portrait Lighting Equipment

When considering what light source to use for studio purposes, the light will most likely be a medium or large softbox for the fill light and a strobe for the key light. It’s not uncommon to mix light modifiers to obtain different styles of the same image.

For example, a photographer may use a speedlite and a reflector instead of two softboxes. Depending on the individual’s preference, they may choose the speedlite for harder contrast or they may choose two softboxes to achieve an overall soft light on the subject’s face.

If you’re just getting started and still building your kit, the following options are good starting points. They’re decent quality while still being affordable for the amateur photographer:

Profoto Softboxes

Portrait lighting setups
These softboxes from StudioPro are an affordable option for those looking to build up their portrait lighting setups.

NEEWER Speedlite

studio lighting setups
Another ultra affordable, entry level option for those just getting started with flash photography.

Now, let’s talk about how you can use these pieces of equipment to start taking great portraits!

Technical Knowledge

Before using any studio lighting, you want to make sure you’re in Manual Mode on your camera in order to ensure you can change the following settings:

  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • ISO

You should have a basic understanding of the full f-stops for your camera. They are typically as follows: f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22, and f32.

If it’s hard to memorize, try this tip:

Memorize f1.4 and f2, then multiply everything afterward by two. For example, f1.4 x f2 = f2.8 and f2.8 x f2 = f5.6.

Don’t worry if it’s confusing at first. After a little practice, it will become second nature and make light metering your subject a lot easier.

In addition to learning the full f-stops for your camera, you should also know the equivalent shutter speeds to your f-stops and the different amounts of ISO there are for your camera. If you’re still in the process of figuring out all the manual settings of your camera, I recommend you check out this posts first:

For studio work, most of the time you will be using ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 125th/sec. The reason for this is because the high voltage of the strobes will be so bright, anything above ISO 100 will most likely result in an overexposed image. Additionally, anything slower than 125th/sec for your shutter speed will generally result in an overexposed image. If you were to have a shutter speed slower than 125th/sec, it will create a black gradient over the image, cutting it in half.

The 4 Essential Patterns and Portrait Lighting Setups

Considering you know the technical knowledge of f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO, we now move onto lighting patterns.

There are four lighting patterns we’re going to discuss today:

Since I promised you could do all these with only a single light source, I’ll provide you with lighting diagrams showing you exactly how to do it. That being said, as you become more and more confident with your abilities, you may want to start experimenting more with your portrait lighting setups by bringing in additional lights and modifiers to really fine tune everything. For now, however, let’s stick to the basics, which you can easily get some incredible portraits from.

Let’s get started!

1. Paramount

Paramount is commonly used on females in portraiture because it conveys beauty and gives an overall glow to the face. Used for most fashion and beauty editorials, it offers minimal shadows and accentuates the subject’s cheek bones.

Paramount is also known as butterfly lighting due to the shadow under the nose resembling the shape of a butterfly.

Portrait lighting setups
Do you see the butterfly shaped shadow under the nose? That’s the trademark of paramount lighting. Photo by Dune Stewart

How To Setup Your Studio Light For Paramount Lighting

To achieve Paramount (or, butterfly) lighting, place the key light above the subject’s face, aiming down at a forty-five degree angle.

paramount lighting, lighting diagram
Paramount Lighting Diagram

2. Loop

There are two types of loop patterns: open loop and closed loop. An open loop will cast an oval shadow from the corner of the nose and stay close enough to not reach the shadows from the cheek. If it is a closed loop, the shadow from the nose will extend to the far end of the cheek, closing the shadow to represent it as one overall shadow.

Related article: Ultimate guide to low key lighting in photography

girl, portrait, loop, black background,
Open and closed loop lighting are similar patterns that can be fine tuned until you have just the right amount of light and shadow on the subject’s face. Photo by Dune Stewart

How To Set Up Your Studio Light For Loop Lighting

A loop lighting pattern can be achieved by having the key light slightly to the side of the subject, and then lifted above their eye level, angled down towards their head.

loop lighting, lighting diagram,
Loop Lighting Diagram

3. Rembrandt

Rembrandt lighting derived from the dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn who used this lighting pattern in a majority of his paintings. The pattern is noticeable when there is an inverted triangle of light in the shadows. The key light should be at a 45-degree angle away from the subject while also being two feet above eye level. Be wary because the higher the light, the smaller the triangle will become.

Portrait lighting setup
If you’re going for a moody feel, Rembrandt lighting is a great choice. Photo by Dune Stewart

A perfect Rembrandt will show the triangle under the eye without seeping into it.  This pattern is commonly used on both male and female figures when trying to convey a moody scene.

How To Setup Your Studio Light For Rembrandt Lighting

Have your subject stand directly in front of the camera, then place your light source at a 45-degree angle towards their face. Make sure the light is slightly higher than the subject’s head. You can ask the subject to rotate their head away from the camera towards the light source until the desired “triangle” is achieved.

rembrandt lighting, lighting diagram,
Rembrandt Lighting Diagram

To gain an in-depth perspective about Rembrandt lighting, please visit our recent post, Rembrandt lighting: Level Up Your Portraits With This Simple Rembrandt Lighting Diagram.

4. Split

Split lighting patterns are adjunct to Rembrandt lighting since they both offer more pleasing traits to masculinity and dramatic scenes.

Dune Stewart, guy, man, boy, self portrait, split lighting, black background
Perfect for male subjects, split lighting instills a sense of masculinity onto the subject. Photo by Dune Stewart

How To Setup Your Studio Light For Split Lighting

Have a light at a 90-degree angle from the subject, and their face split half with light and half with shadows. It’s perfect when 2/3 of the forehead are light and half of the face is in shadows.

lighting diagram, split lighting,
Split Lighting Diagram

What’s Your Favorite Portrait Lighting Setup?

Lighting techniques and patterns may be challenging at first glance, but after a few sessions with practice, you are sure to master it! As long as you know the basics of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, the rest will seem simple. And, after perfecting these sweet portrait lighting setups, you should also take a look at this great post from Elliot Pelling:

One last thing before I go, I’m really interested in what kind of portrait lighting setups our readers prefer to use. Maybe we can teach each other something new! So, don’t forget to tell us what your favorite lighting pattern is in the comments.

I’d love to hear about when and why you prefer a specific lighting pattern over another. Also, let us know if you have any variations on the portrait lighting setups we mentioned above. We’re all ears!


Get valuable photography education and inspiration.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

By the way, if you find the lighting diagrams useful, you can create a lighting diagram for yourself at Lighting Diagrams. It’s a pretty cool way to save your favorite lighting setups for easy reference on future shoots!

Send this to a friend