Split lighting technique in portrait photography Ideas and tips for perfect split light portraits


Split lighting

If you’re bored with everyone’s portraits looking the same and you want yours to stand out from the crowd, you need to try split light photography. Split light is a classic portrait photography lighting technique, but it is more uncommon than other light schemes in portrait photography, such as Rembrandt, or loop lighting, making it the perfect lighting technique to use if you’re looking to create standout, dramatic portraits that demand the viewer’s attention. If you’re wondering how to split lighting exactly, you’ve come to the right place. In this post we will be covering the following:

    • Split lighting definition
    • What mood does split lighting create?
    • Split lighting setup


Split lighting definition

Split lighting is a form of side lighting used to create portraits. Even if you haven’t heard of split lighting before, it’s easy to create and you won’t need a split lighting diagram to understand. 

To create a split lighting portrait, the photographer places the light at a 90° angle to the left or right of their subject, which casts a light on the subject, split down the middle. And the great thing about the split lighting technique is that all you need is one source of light (and of course, your camera) to create a compelling portrait.


Split lighting portraits


What mood does split lighting create?

Split lighting is the perfect lighting technique to create vivid, intense and interesting portraits. This makes it perfect for artistic portraits, or even for an actor looking to create an unusual, dramatic headshot. It looks especially great in a black and white style. It is also used in editorial photography to create portraits. 

Because of the deep contrast of light and shadow, this lighting will exaggerate texture on your subject. Split lighting creates very honest compositions as it will highlight skin texture; quite literally placing a spotlight on it. However, if you want to create a soft-focus, more flattering portrait, that de-emphasizes flaws, then split lighting is not ideal. 


Split lighting setup

Although the split lighting technique produces special results, it is remarkably simple to achieve. All you need is your camera, a tripod for stability, and a good light source. 

1. Obtain a light source

As we said above, you only need one light source. This is a versatile technique as you can use either a natural light source or an artificial one. If you are using the sun as your light source, place your subject next to a window. Otherwise, you can use an artificial light such as a continuous LED light or an external flash.  

2. Place your subject at a 90° angle

Then, to produce the split light effect, you place your subject at a 90° angle to the light source. You can move your subject around until you achieve the line down the centre of the face. Some photographers prefer to place the light source slightly behind their subject. In terms of height, your light should be level with your subject, as experimenting with higher angles will introduce unwanted shadows.

3. Move the light away for a harsher effect

You will find that the further the light source is from your subject, the harsher the contrast is. If you prefer a softer split light, keep less distance between your subject and the light.

4. Add a modifier to adjust the transitions

To make your light softer, you can add a modifier to your light source. Adding a diffuser, softbox, or umbrella to your setup will make the transition from shadow to light more soft and gradual. 

5. Add a reflector to soften shadows

If you like the split light look but want to reduce the depth of the shadow you can use a reflector. Using a reflector opposite the light source will reflect light onto the dark side of your subject’s face; in the right position, it will keep your split light effect, but soften the shadow. 

Split light portraits


6. Use a backlight for a halo effect

The basic split light setup only requires one light source, but backlighting can help to enhance the setup. Adding a backlight will give more depth to your subject and create a halo light. 

7. Add gels for colour

If you want to get creative with split lighting, you can introduce colour to the portrait. If you’re using a flash as your light source, you can use coloured flash gels. This will then flash a coloured light onto your subject. 

And that’s it. The basic setup stops at number 3, but if you want complete mastery over shadow depth and transitions, you can introduce modifiers and extra light sources. The split lighting technique is a very striking technique that looks great, even if you have a minimal setup, so we would encourage playing around with it to create captivating portraits. 


We hope you enjoyed reading our split lighting guide!

If you’re looking for a masterful portrait photographer, book with Splento. Splento portrait photographers are experts in portrait lighting techniques to achieve amazing portraits. Contact us today to inquire about a portrait photography session. 


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