Photography Lighting

Split Lighting in Photography

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Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about split lighting.

After reading this guide, you’ll know what split lighting is, why split lighting is important, how to use split lighting, and lots more.

With that being said, let’s dive in!

What is Split Lighting in Photography?

Think of split lighting as the yin and yang of portrait photography; it’s a technique where one side of the subject’s face is brightly lit while the other side languishes in the shadows.

Split lighting is often considered the same as side lighting.

Just like how the stark contrast between yin and yang creates harmony, split lighting produces dramatic, intense, and powerful images by juxtaposing light and darkness.

Imagine taking a portrait of someone with a slightly wider face. With split lighting, you can create an optical illusion and make their face appear narrower.

Be mindful though, if your model has distinct nose shapes, split lighting may exaggerate that.

Setting up split lighting might sound like a thing only professionals can handle, but it’s surprisingly simple.

Picture placing a lamp (your light source) directly to the side of your friend (the subject) in a dark room. That’s the basic setup!

side lighting at 90 degrees
side lighting at 90 degrees

From there, consider yourself an artist. Approach the lamp like you would with paint on a canvas – adding more here, less there.

You can play around with how far the light is from your friend and even experiment with different kinds of lamps. Believe me, even a slight modification can drastically alter the mood and intensity of your photo.

Now think about those times when you’ve wanted to bring forward more details on the shadowy side of the picture.

Here’s where a bounce board or a fill light can be your best friend. It helps illuminate the darker side a bit to bring out the hidden details.

Split lighting is one of those tools in your photography tool belt that bridges the gap between someone with a passion for photography and those fancy professional photographers.

All it takes is a single light source – no array of expensive equipment required. The result? Professional-level portraits marked by depth, drama, and mystery.

split lighting portrait
split lighting portrait

How to Use Split Lighting?

Well, it’s pretty straightforward and a technique that’s especially impactful when you’re trying to capture striking, dramatic portraits.

Let me break down how to do it, step by step.

1. Control Your Light Source

The first tip to use split lighting is to control your light source.

Ways to control your light source include using a softbox, beauty dish, or a directional strobe with adjustable settings.

You want to be able to place the light to the side of your subject to effectively capure a striking split lighting effect.

If you are using natural light instead of artifical lighting, it may be hard to control the light source.

2. Understand the Angle

The second tip to use split lighting is to understand the angle.

As mentioned earlier, the key to split lighting is the angle at which you position your light.

You’ll want to place it precisely at a 90-degree angle to your subject to create that contrast and clear division between light and shadow.

If you place it 45-degrees, you’ll have Rembrandt lighting and if you place it ~30-degrees you’ll have loop lighting.

3. Quality of Light Matters

The third tip to use split lighting is to remember that quality of light matters.

Not all light is the same — there is hard light and then there is soft light.

I recommend opting for a soft, diffused light to help maintain your subject’s skin tones and to minimize harsh shadows.

You can obtain soft light by using a large softbox or diffuser.

This will help smoothen out the transition between light and shadow.

soft split light
soft split light

4. Experiment with Angles

The fourth tip to use split lighting is to experiment with angles.

When using a single lighting angle, you don’t have to limit yourself with the height of your light.

Slight variations in your light’s angle can produce different effects.

Higher Angle Key Light:

When the key light is positioned at a higher angle, it typically shines down on the subject from above. This can create a more intense and dramatic look.

The shadows cast by the nose, chin, and other facial features will be more pronounced and can add depth and texture to the image.

This angle can be more flattering for some subjects as it can define their facial features and bone structure, creating a strong contrast between light and shadow.

higher angle split lighting
higher angle split lighting

Lower Angle Key Light:

A key light positioned at a lower angle illuminates the subject’s face from below. This often results in a more mysterious and dramatic effect.

Shadows from the nose and other facial features may be less pronounced, and the overall lighting can appear softer.

A lower angle key light can be used to create a sense of intrigue and add a touch of glamour to the portrait.

lower eye-level angle split lighting
lower eye-level angle split lighting

Experiment with different angles in height to see which one suits your style better.

5. Watch for Catchlights

The fifth tip to use split lighting is to watch for catchlights.

Paying attention to catchlights in your subject’s eyes is a critical aspect of using split lighting effectively.

Catchlights are the specular highlights in a person’s eyes that are created by the reflection of a light source.

They can significantly impact the overall look and feel of a portrait.

You can enhance catchlights by placing a white or silver reflector on the shadowed side of your subject’s face. This reflector bounces some of the light back into the eyes, creating catchlights.

Adjust the reflector’s angle and intensity to control the size and brightness of the catchlights.

catchlight in split lighting
catchlight in split lighting

Speaking of reflectors, let’s move on to the next tip!

6. Reflectors and Fill Lights

The sixth tip when using split lighting is to consider using a reflector or a fill light.

Reflectors and fill lights come in handy when you want to fill in the shadows a tiny bit if they are too harsh.

For example, if you can’t even see the shadowed side of your subject’s face, then it may be good to introduce a reflector or fill light.

This will help maintain detail in the shadowed areas while still retaining the split lighting effect.

In case you need a refresher, a fill light goes on the opposite side of your key light in a three-point lighting setup.

three point lighting
three point lighting

7. Post-Processing Enhancements

The seventh tip when using split lighting is to use post-processing enhancements.

While it’s best to get the split lighting effect correct in-camera, you can make minor adjustments in post-processing to fine-tune your contrast and color balance.

For example, raising the shadows or blacks or lowering the white and the highlights can allow you to fine-tune the exposure in your image.

If you want a more dramatic effect, then increase the contrast slider and vice versa for a less dramatic effect.

Who Can Benefit From Using Split Lighting In Photography?

If you’re a photography enthusiast or a professional photographer, split lighting is an art form and technique you should consider.

Even if you are just a beginner dabbling in the field, you can take your portraits to the next level by using this technique.

Imagine painting a portrait with nothing but a light brush. Much like how different brush strokes can bring certain features to life or push others into the shadows, split lighting serves as your invisible ‘brush’.

The shadows not only contour your subject’s face, making wider faces appear narrower and highlighting unique features like their nose shapes but also add depth and drama to the picture.

It’s as if you’re creating a beautiful dance sequence between lights and shadows – with your subject in the wing, ready to perform.

One of the best aspects of using split lighting is that it doesn’t necessitate a big budget or multiple expensive equipments.

With just one key light, you can master this technique.

In short, whether you’re a curious beginner looking to experiment, or a professional seeking to add more intensity and emotion to your photographs, split lighting is a simple and achievable technique you can benefit from.

It’s an innovative way to paint portraits with light, heightening the mood, drama, and mystery of the image.

When Is The Best Time To Use Split Lighting Techniques?

The best time to use split lighting is when you’re aiming to add an intense, dramatic effect to your portraits.

For instance, if you’re taking portraits of subjects with wider faces and you want to make them appear narrower, split lighting would be a useful technique.

It’s like strategically placing a scarf or piece of accessory to enhance your subject’s features.

However, bear in mind that split lighting can also cast noticeable shadows, much like when the sun is on one side of building, leaving the other side in shadow.

This can darken one half of the subject’s face and may accentuate certain details like the shape of their nose. If your subject is comfortable with this, then go for it.

Where Can You Use Split Lighting In Photography?

There are many applications for split lighting.

1. Portraits

Often split lighting is associated with portrait photography, however, it extends far beyond just that genre.

It’s like the Swiss army knife in a photographer’s toolbox, it could be used in varied scenarios from portrait to landscape, and even filmography or cinematography.

Imagine you are creating a character portrait for a film noir or shooting dramatic landscapes, and you want to add depth, duality or even a mysterious allure to the images.

This is where bringing the split lighting technique into action could be incredibly useful.

2. Videography

Beyond photography, you can also find use for it in videography. You could create intense, dramatic scenes by making one side of the subject’s face well illuminated with the other half drowned in shadows.

Interestingly, you can play around with split lighting even when capturing unconventional subjects. Have you ever thought about shooting objects, for instance?

3. Still Life

Say, in product photography or still life. Here’s where the magic of split lighting can really present itself.

The technique can bring an ordinary object, like a bottle of perfume or a rusted key, to life by highlighting only one half of it and leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

Why Is Split Lighting An Effective Photography Technique?

The stark contrast of split lighting, where one half of the subject’s face is fully illuminated and the other half cloaked in shadow, paints a captivatingly mysterious picture that can arrest the viewer’s attention.

This technique is particularly impactful for portrait photographers or cinematographers looking to infuse their shots with a dynamic mood or emotional undertone.

Whether you’re a beginner photographer working within a budget or a seasoned professional seeking diversity in your images – split lighting suits everyone.

Is Split lighting more masculine or feminine?

Split lighting can emphasize the masculine features of a subject’s face, as it creates strong contrasts and shadows, often resulting in a more dramatic and defined appearance.

What is another name for split lighting?

Another name for split lighting in photography is “side lighting,” as it involves illuminating one side of the subject while leaving the other side in shadow.