With a sin­gle light source, it’s best to learn how to reflect and dif­fuse it by mod­el­ing the image. Source: pixabay.com

Light­ing is one of the main and most ver­sa­tile tools of a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. There are a huge num­ber of ways to shape the light to a spe­cif­ic design. But with a begin­ner, such diver­si­ty can play a cru­el joke. You can sit for a long time, choos­ing a suit­able light­ing scheme, wor­ry­ing that some­thing is miss­ing — and still not remove any­thing.

We believe that you need to start small. One light source is not a lim­i­ta­tion, but a rea­son for exper­i­ments! There­fore, we present you a list of light­ing schemes built on a sin­gle light source. You can repeat them with­out much effort.

All the schemes described in the arti­cle require the main light, it can be a flash or a con­stant light. You can use pulse mono­lights, on-cam­era flash­es or LED illu­mi­na­tors.

The most impor­tant thing is where the light source is locat­ed, but you may also need light mod­i­fiers. We wrote more about them in the arti­cle about attach­ments for stu­dio light.

Com­mon Sin­gle Source Light­ing Schemes
But­ter­fly light­ing or but­ter­fly light­ing scheme
Loop light­ing or loop light­ing
Split light­ing or side light­ing
Rem­brandt light­ing or Rem­brandt light
Cre­ative light­ing schemes with a sin­gle source
Over­head light­ing from The God­fa­ther
Sim­u­lat­ing sun­light
Reverse key light­ning or upstage light­ing
book light

Common Single Source Lighting Schemes

Butterfly lighting or butterfly lighting scheme

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

In this scheme, the mod­el, cam­era and light source are locat­ed on the same line. The light source is set above the head of the mod­el and tilt­ed towards her face at an angle of 45 degrees.

Such light soft­ens the face of the mod­el, draws small shad­ows under the chin and nose. The lat­ter is shaped like a but­ter­fly. She gave the scheme its name.

In this scheme, the eyes and both sides of the mod­el’s face are even­ly lit. With the help of but­ter­fly light­ing in por­traits, they empha­size the line of the chin and cheek­bones.

It is pop­u­lar in beau­ty pho­tog­ra­phy, and also allows you to imi­tate fash­ion shots in the style of the 50s. But­ter­fly light­ing has been used to pho­to­graph some of the most famous stars of clas­sic Hol­ly­wood. Actu­al­ly, his mid­dle name is Para­mount light­ing, after the name of the film com­pa­ny in whose tapes this scheme was dis­trib­uted.

With this scheme, you can high­light the cheek­bones and cre­ate shad­ows under them, as well as under the neck — which makes the mod­el slim­mer. But­ter­fly light­ing is also good for por­traits of old­er peo­ple as it does­n’t focus on wrin­kles.

Loop lighting or loop lighting

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

Like most schemes, loop light­ing takes its name from the char­ac­ter­is­tic shad­ow it cre­ates, which this time extends from the nose to the cor­ner of the mouth.

The scheme is a but­ter­fly light­ing, in which the light source is not in line with the mod­el and the cam­era. In loop light­ing, the light source is slight­ly side­ways from the cam­era and turned to the mod­el by the same 45 degrees. As in BL, the light is set to be above the sub­jec­t’s head, tilt­ed towards her face.

In loop light­ing, most of the face is well lit. But since the light source is slight­ly to the side of the cam­era, shad­ows are added to one side of the face (if they seem too deep, you can add a reflec­tor rotat­ed 45 degrees to the shad­ed side to the scheme). The light needs to be far enough away from the cam­era to cre­ate these shad­ows, but close enough so that both sides of the face are well lit.

Loop light­ing is not as dra­mat­ic as split light­ing or rem­brandt light­ing, but more inter­est­ing than flat light­ing. Loop light­ing will add depth to the por­trait while main­tain­ing good light­ing.

Loop light­ing also works well for peo­ple with oval faces. It helps to high­light and slight­ly raise the cheek­bones, there­by nar­row­ing and length­en­ing the oval of the face.

Split lighting or side lighting

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

In this scheme, the light seems to divide the face of the mod­el in half. One half is well lit, the oth­er is in the shade.

You can achieve this effect by plac­ing the light source on the side of the mod­el at about the height of the face. Due to this, the light should reach only one side of the face, leav­ing the oth­er side dark.

This scheme cre­ates a dra­mat­ic and gloomy mood. Wide­spread in fash­ion and com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy, and will also add vari­ety to a set of the­mat­ic por­trait pho­tographs.

Rembrandt lighting or Rembrandt light

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

This pat­tern is named after the famous Dutch artist, as it was often seen in his paint­ings. The essence of the scheme is to ensure that one side of the mod­el’s face is illu­mi­nat­ed, the oth­er is shad­ed. But on the shad­ed side, on the cheek and under the eye, there should be a light pat­tern in the shape of a tri­an­gle.

To achieve this pat­tern, the light source needs to be moved to the right or left of the loop and direct­ed down­ward at a steep­er angle. And the mod­el should stand per­pen­dic­u­lar to the cam­era.

Creative lighting schemes with a single source

Overhead lighting from The Godfather

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

This is a very dis­creet scheme with bright areas and deep shad­ows, with lit­tle to no light falling on the back­ground (in this scheme it should be dark).

In The God­fa­ther, Mar­lon Bron­do has deep shad­ows in front of his eyes. This cre­ates a mys­te­ri­ous and men­ac­ing impres­sion of the char­ac­ter — we do not see his eyes.

The light source must be posi­tioned direct­ly above the mod­el, for exam­ple, using a crane stand, and then moved slight­ly for­ward.

If the light is behind the mod­el, her entire face will be obscured. The fore­head, nose and cheek­bones will be only slight­ly vis­i­ble, and this is more like some kind of hor­ror movie.

If the light is extend­ed too far in front of the mod­el, the eyes will be illu­mi­nat­ed, which defeats the pur­pose.

Simulating sunlight

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

The essence of this scheme, as the name implies, is to sim­u­late nat­ur­al light­ing.

Light com­ing from a sin­gle source can bounce off white walls, reflec­tors, or the back­ground (any­thing, the main thing is col­or). And his char­ac­ter becomes sim­i­lar to the light­ing on a sun­ny day.

One way to cre­ate this lay­out is to build a white foam U‑shaped struc­ture around the mod­el. Light must be direct­ed to the upper block. Repeat­ed­ly reflect­ed from the sur­round­ing white sur­faces, the light will become dif­fused. If you find it looks too flat on the mod­el’s face, you can add some black fab­ric on the side where you want to deep­en the shad­ows.

Reverse key lightning or upstage lighting

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

Key light is the main light source with which you shape your object. They can be at least a flash­light, at least a win­dow. Reverse in this con­text means that the light should be on the side or slight­ly behind the object or mod­el. At this time, the cam­era is direct­ed to the part of the object that is cov­ered by the shad­ow.

This approach cre­ates a great sense of depth. The scheme can be sup­ple­ment­ed with a reflec­tor by plac­ing it in front of the object to scat­ter the back­light. On the oppo­site side of the light source, a black object (fab­ric, card­board, poly­styrene, the main thing is col­or) will fit per­fect­ly. Its pur­pose is to absorb light and fur­ther dark­en the object from the side fac­ing the cam­era.

This scheme cre­ates inter­est­ing shad­ows, which means depth, inter­est and con­trast, giv­ing you an area of ​​shad­ow along the mod­el’s face to play with.

book light

Pho­to: Kon­stan­tin Demin, Photosklad.Expert

This pat­tern was designed to achieve soft dif­fused light with­out tak­ing up as much space as a stan­dard dif­fuser. This is a great way to soft­en the light if you only have the hard ver­sion on hand.

The scheme is as fol­lows: first, the light must be passed through the reflec­tor. This will make the light out­put wider and at the same time soft­en it. Place the reflec­tor at a 45 degree angle to the light source. Then the light must be scat­tered. For this, pack­ing foam, bub­ble wrap, food paper, trac­ing paper or white fab­ric (nylon, lin­ing fab­ric) are suit­able. It must be placed at an angle of 45 degrees to the reflec­tor.

Also, this scheme is use­ful if you need to dim the direc­tion­al light, but the room you are shoot­ing in is too small to move the light source away from the sub­ject. Why is that? Remem­ber the inverse square law: the inten­si­ty of light is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to the square of the dis­tance. By build­ing a cir­cuit with a reflec­tor, we increase the dis­tance that light trav­els from the source to the object. Thus, at the same time, we reduce its pow­er.

As you can see from the dia­gram, this dia­gram is called “book” because the arrange­ment rel­a­tive to each oth­er resem­bles an open book.


It hap­pens that you have to lim­it your­self to one light source not because of a cre­ative idea, but for quite ordi­nary rea­sons. Or you are lim­it­ed by space, in which there is only enough space for one light source. Or lim­it­ed by bud­get.

When you get into these lim­its, you learn new things. When you have only one light source, you must learn to con­trol and shape it: reflect and dif­fuse. By adding shad­ows, you deep­en and mod­el the image.