Broad Lighting: What Is It, and How Does It Work?

If you’re looking to understand the ins-and-outs of broad lighting, then you’ve come to the right place.

While broad lighting can be a tricky concept–one that comes with a lot of misconceptions–this article will set everything straight. 

And by the time you’re done, you’ll know all about broad lighting, and how you can use it for the best possible results. 

Let’s dive right in.

What is Broad Lighting?

Here’s the thing:

When it comes to lighting setups, most photographers think of moving lights into different positions and lighting the subject in different ways. 

And this is correct…

…for most lighting “patterns.”

But broad lighting is different. 

It’s not so much about how you light the subject. 

Instead, it’s about how you photograph the subject once the subject is already lit. 

You see, broad lighting refers to the well-lit part of the face positioned toward the camera.

This is an example of broad lighting:

Do you see how the part of the face that’s well-lit is angled so that it stays dominant within the composition? 

You can barely see the unlit, shadowy part of the face (which is angled away from the camera). 

That’s broad lighting. 

That’s not to say that the lighting setup doesn’t matter at all. It does matter, because part of the face must be in shadow, and part must be well-lit. 

So broad lighting requires the subject to be partially lit, via a lighting pattern such as Rembrandt lighting, loop lighting, or split lighting.

I’ll cover some of these setups in more detail below, but the key thing to remember is that broad lighting primarily shows the well-lit part of the face; if you can remember this, then you’re golden.

Broad Lighting vs Short Lighting

If you’re looking to use broad lighting in your photography, it pays to understand its opposite:

Short lighting.

Short lighting is the reverse of broad lighting. Instead of photographing the well-lit part of the face, you photograph the shadowed side of your subject, to create moody, dramatic images like this one:

See how the dark part of the face is angled toward the camera, while the well-lit part is angled away? 

That’s short lighting.

Note that neither broad lighting nor short lighting is technically better than the other; they both have their own applications, and they can both get you great results, depending on what you’re after. 

So keep both options in your photography “quiver,” and you’ll be able to pull either one out when it works with your subject.

But how do you know which option to use? How can you tell whether broad lighting or short lighting works with your subject?

When Should You Use Broad Lighting?

Broad lighting has a few key effects.

First, broad lighting widens the face, by making it stand out. That’s why broad lighting works well when photographing subjects with narrow faces; you can use broad lighting to expand the face and help fill it out further. 

However, if your subject is overweight, or has a rounder face, short lighting is often considered more flattering, because it does the opposite (that is, short lighting narrows the face and makes your subject appear slimmer).

Second, broad lighting hides parts of the face by angling it away and shrouding it in shadow. Photographers sometimes use this to draw attention away from blemishes on one side of the face, such as acne or birthmarks (though I recommend you always speak to your subject before hiding something substantial, such as a birthmark). 

Third, broad lighting creates a nice amount of depth (i.e., three-dimensionality), without creating an overly dramatic shot. So if you’re looking for a flattering, more neutral result, broad lighting is a good way to go.

How to Set Up Broad Lighting: A Step-By-Step

Now let’s take a look at how to create a nice, broadlit setup:

Required Equipment

In addition to a camera and a portrait lens (generally in the 50mm to 200mm range), you’ll need at least one light source. 

You can use natural light, via a low sun or a window. But if you prefer to shoot in the studio, or you’re after a more controlled effect, then you’ll want at least one artificial light (i.e., a strobe or a flash), as well as a modifier (i.e., an umbrella or a softbox).

Now, depending on the look that you’re after, you can add additional lights and additional modifiers. An easy way to adjust your broad lighting effect is with a reflector; as you’ll see below, this helps you add a bit of light back into the shadow and achieve a more natural, softer effect. 

You can also add a second light and/or a third light if you’re aiming for an even more complex effect, but bear in mind that you’ll also get a great result with just a single light source, so don’t feel like you need to create an overly complex setup.

Make sense?

The Basics

As you know, broad light requires a partially-lit face. 

There are a few common ways of achieving this, but the fundamental direction here is this:

Place your main light off to the side of the subject, somewhere between the 90 degree angle and the 45 degree angle. And while you can position the light at any height, it often pays to put it slightly above your subject, so that it’s pointed down slightly.

This will shroud part of your subject’s face in shadow, while leaving another part well-lit. And depending on the level of drama you’re after, you can shadow more or less of your subject’s face (with more shadow resulting in more drama).

Once you’ve ensured that your subject’s face is partially lit, you’ll need to set up your camera so that it’s angled toward the well-lit side of the face. This means that you can’t shoot your subject straight on; instead, you need to physically move your camera to the side, so that it’s pointed toward the brighter portion of the face. 

Note that the light will be somewhere behind you, the photographer. So be careful about interfering and casting unwanted shadows on your subject. 

And that’s it! To recap:

Step 1: Position the light off to the side of your subject, so that part of their face is shrouded in shadow.

Step 2: Position your camera so that the well-lit portion of the face is dominant in the frame. 

Now let’s look at a few more specific methods of using broad light to enhance your subject, starting with:

Broad Plus Rembrandt

Rembrandt lighting involves lighting your subject from the side, so that only a triangle of light appears under the eye, like this:

It’s very flattering, fairly dramatic, and a great type of lighting for most situations.

To use broad lighting and Rembrandt lighting together, simply create a Rembrandt lighting pattern (by putting your light off to the side and fine-tuning until you see that triangle under the subject’s eye). 

Then position your camera so that it’s capturing the well-lit portion of the face.

Broad Plus Split Lighting

Split lighting involves lighting your subject so that half of the face is completely in shadow, and half of the face is well-lit, like this:

For a dramatic effect, you can use broad lighting and split lighting together. 

Here’s how it works:

First, place your light source off to the side of your subject, at 90 degrees (so that one half of the face is completely shrouded in shadow).

Second, position yourself so that you’re photographing the well-lit portion of the face. 

And snap your photo!

Adding Some Fill

If you’re looking to create a natural, gradual result, where the light goes from light to dark in a non-dramatic, soft fashion, then you’ll want to add in some fill light on the shadowed side of your subject. 

You can use a simple reflector for this; place it on the other side of your subject, so that it pushes a bit of light back into the shadows. 

(You can play with putting the reflector closer and farther away; closer will add more light, farther away will add less.)

Alternatively, you can use another flash, set to a lower power setting.

Adding a Third Light

If you want to really take your broad lighting setups to the next level, think about including another light behind your subject. 

If you position this light low down and point it up toward the backdrop, you can create a halo, which helps your subject stand out and looks extremely professional. 

Broad Lighting: Conclusion

Broad lighting is a flattering lighting style, and one that’s useful in all sorts of situations. 

So the next time you’re after a more natural–but still three-dimensional!–look, try broad lighting. 

You’ll get some great results!

What is broad lighting?

Broad lighting is a lighting technique/angle in which you position the well-lit portion of the subject’s face closer to the camera.

What’s the difference between broad and short lighting?

Broad lighting is used when you photograph the well-lit portion of a person’s face; short lighting is used when you photography the shadowed portion of a person’s face. Broad lighting widens the face, and gives a brighter, more natural result. Short lighting narrows the face, but is much more dramatic.

What’s the difference between broad lighting and split lighting?

Split lighting is a lighting pattern , which means that you have to put the light in a certain place (off to the side!) in order to achieve it. Broad lighting is more of a camera composition/angle, and is achieved by positioning the subject

About the Author
jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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