Lighting Series: Profile and Split Lighting

Written by Backdrop Express Photography Team on . Posted in Studio Equipment, Studio Lighting

Split Lighting & Profile Lighting | Backdrop Express Photo Blog Profile lighting and split lighting are two more studio techniques to our Lighting Series. These lighting styles are less common in photography, but offer a very unique, mysterious and creative look to any subject.

Split Lighting

Split lighting is a technique that produces a sense of drama to a portrait. This form of lighting is when half of the subject’s face is lit, while the other half is left dark. The light is evenly divided over the subject. This form of lighting is not as popular as the others, but is one way to add a unique look and feel to a photograph. One of the advantages to using the split lighting technique is that there is only need for a single light. This light set up is great if you are just starting out and do not have the budget for a full light kit.

Split Lighting & Profile Lighting | Backdrop Express Photo BlogPhoto by capturedenigma via Flickr

Achieving the Effect

To achieve this look, place the key light to one side of your subject at a 90 degree angle. If desired, a light modifier can be added to the light, however, this technique can be used with both soft or hard light sources. Make sure the line between the dark and light side runs down the center of the subject’s face by shooting a few test shots. Have the subject look straight into the camera and the line between light and dark should run directly over the nose. The final product is your split lighting shot.

Enhancing the Effect

Before taking the picture, add some flair such as a hair light. If you think a fill light would add to the portrait, make sure to place the camera in front of a large umbrella or softbox and keep the light level at a few stops below that of the key light.


  • Be careful with ears. If not shot carefully, they can take the viewer’s attention off of the focal point, especially if the key light is directly in front of the subject. To avoid this, make sure the key light stays at 45 degrees so the ears do not leave shadows. You can also use the subject’s hair to hide his/her ear.
  • Noses can also cause trouble. For subjects with large noses, suggest a different style of portrait as this one will likely be unflattering.
  • Ask the subject to look slightly at the camera. This allows more of the iris of the eye to show, while hiding more of the white, reducing the possibility of a glazed look.

Profile Lighting

Profile lighting is not as common as other types of setups because of a few difficulties that can arise. This setup is not as flattering for some people as for others since it emphasizes certain features, such as larger noses. Also, this setup provides less visual interest for some people, since instead of providing a view of the entire face, it only shows about half. Despite these aspects, profile lighting creates some very beautiful shots.

Split Lighting & Profile Lighting | Backdrop Express Photo BlogPhoto by Marc Payne via Flickr

Achieving the Effect

Begin this easy setup by asking the subject to face at a 90 degree angel from the camera, with the camera on the opposite side of him/her from the photo background. Place your key light in a position 45 degrees off the person’s face. Another option is to place the light right in front of them, but this gives less modeling and a less intense portrait. Try different positions for both lighting forms before picking one. Practice the height as well, but usually head height provides the best result.

Enhancing the Effect

Other techniques can be combined with the split lighting technique to enhance and give the photograph a unique look and feel. Add a hair light on the same side as the key light, but slightly behind the subject to create a glow around his or her head, while still keeping one side of the face in the dark. The glow around the head will separate the model from the backdrop. Point the hair light up toward the backdrop. You can also point the light toward the bottom of the photo backdrop to light up the lower half of the frames background. When using split lighting you do not want to use any reflectors, additional lights or bounce boards. These will add light to the subject’s face, decreasing the effect of split lighting.

As a beginning photographer, take the time to practice light placement and shoot several test shots until you achieve the desired lighting look. The more you practice these techniques, the faster you will be able to master them.

-Backdrop Express Photography Team

Interested in learning about more lighting techniques? Check out Lighting Series: Short and Broad Lighting!

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