Lighting for Portraits

Lighting is one of the most fundamental aspects of portraiture. The correct look can help create atmosphere - whether it be friendly, sombre, dramatic or imposing.

When it comes to painting, the shadows generated from the right kind of lighting can add a very important depth to the painting.

With that in mind, I wanted to write a simple & brief overview of how to go about lighting a subject when taking a photograph or setting up for a portrait sitting.


What lights to use?

The first thing to consider is the type of light you’ll be using. You’ll want to use something that you can easily move around.


If you want to achieve a warmer, softer look then try using a bedside lamp. If you want to achieve a harsh, dramatic look then try something that concentrates the light in to a beam, such as a torch.

How many lights to use and how to go about positioning them

One light:

Using one light for your subject can give you a very dramatic look. The most important thing to get right with this set up is the angle and distance of the light from the subject. It’s recommended to start by placing the light approximately 2 feet above eye level and at a 45 degree angle from the front of the sitters face.


If you place the light too close to the subject, you will create very dark shadows and very light highlights. Some features of the face may be obscured by shadow and skin tones may be washed out (especially in photographs). If you place it further away, the overall effect will be less harsh and the edges of the shadows will be softened. 


It is certainly dramatic and can work wonders to create an atmosphere with the right subject but can be unflattering to the sitter.

1 light
2 light

Two lights

If you’d like to get a more flattering image then you should opt for two lights - a primary light and a secondary light, with the secondary light being half as powerful and placed further away than the primary light. Try placing the primary light in a fixed position just above and approximately 45 degrees from the front of the subject’s face.

You can then work with the secondary light in different positions to get the right result (start from 45 degrees and adjust as needed). What you’re attempting to do is ‘fill in’ the areas that aren’t lit by the primary light, ensuring that the shadows are still visible but have been softened somewhat.

You can also achieve a similar but less intense two light effect by reflecting the light of the primary source back onto the shadow side of the face. Professional photographers use specially made reflectors but you can achieve great results with a mirror or even kitchen foil.

Rembrandt Lighting

One of the most common lighting techniques for portraiture is known as ‘Rembrandt Lighting’. At it’s most basic, this effect is very much like the one light approach outlined above. One half of the face is fully lit by a primary light whilst the other half is left in partial shadow with a distinct illuminated triangle under the eye on the shadowed side.


To achieve this effect, simply set up as in the one light approach and move either the light source or tilt the sitters face until a small triangle of light is visible underneath the eye on the shadow side of the face (see image).

Rembrandt Lighting Painting
Rembrandt Lighting Painting
Rembrandt Lighting Photograph
Rembrandt Lighting Photograph