If you’re looking to master loop lighting, then you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about loop lighting–so that you can get the best possible results, consistently.
So if you want to use loop lighting to create incredible, flattering portraits…
…then read on.
What Is Loop Lighting?
Loop lighting is a very popular lighting pattern used by portrait photographers.
It creates images like this:
Now, the hallmark of loop lighting is the shadow of the subject’s nose, which falls onto the face without creating a full triangle.
In other words, this is not loop lighting:
(As indicated by the triangle under the subject’s eye! It’s actually Rembrandt lighting, which is an alternative lighting pattern.)
Loop lighting is very flattering, and it’s easy to pull off, which is why it’s a great go-to form of lighting for any photographer, especially those just starting out in photography, or in situations where you’re just not sure where to start with your subject.
When Should You Use Loop Lighting?
As I mentioned above, loop lighting just looks really, really good on pretty much any subject.
By creating some small shadows on the face, you give depth to the image.
But by keeping the shadows fairly minimal, you prevent the level of drama created by Rembrandt lighting (as in the last section’s example), or in split lighting, where half of the subject’s face is shrouded in shadow and you get a very intense result.
That’s split lighting, and it’s far more dramatic than loop lighting.
Now, sometimes you want to be dramatic. And in those cases, loop lighting probably isn’t the best policy.
But if you’re looking for images that are bright but still have some depth to them, then I absolutely recommend loop lighting.
By the way, while loop lighting can look great with any subject, it’s especially good for subjects that have rounder faces. The shadows will make their facial features appear slightly more angular (i.e., it’ll have a slimming effect).
Now let’s take a look at how you can use loop lighting for spectacular results:
Loop Lighting: A Step-By-Step Setup
If you’re looking to create gorgeous, loop-lit images, here’s what you do:
You’ll need at least one light source. This can be a window light or the sun, but it can also be an artificial light, such as a flash or a strobe. Personally, I recommend using an artificial light, because it’ll give you a lot of control over both the quality and the direction of the light source, but it’s really down to personal preference.
If you do choose to use an artificial light, you’ll need to mount it off the ground with a light stand of some sort. And you’ll want a modifier to soften the light’s effect, such as a softbox, an umbrella, or a beauty dish.
You’ll also probably want a second light or a reflector, in case you’re interested in more complex lighting setups. And you may need a transmitter, so that you can fire the external lights from a distance.
To create a beautiful loop lighting setup, all you have to do is take your light–and position it slightly above the subject and off to the side, somewhere in the 20 to 45 degree window (though it can vary, depending on your subject’s face).
I recommend experimenting with different positions, until you end up with a loop lighting effect that you like.
Note that by bringing the light toward the subject’s eyeline (at zero degrees), you’ll minimize the shadows for a less dramatic, flatter look, like this:
And by bringing the light away from the subject, you’ll create more shadows and get a more dramatic effect, like this:
Neither option is always better; it just depends on your style and your personal preference, as well as your subject’s face.
By the way, be careful not to move too far off to the side of your subject, or else you’ll start creating Rembrandt lighting, and then (if you continue farther) split lighting.
Also be aware that you can create harsher shadows or softer shadows depending on the nearness of the light source, as well as the type of modifier you add to it.
The nearer the light source, the softer the shadow transitions. And modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes will offer very soft light, whereas snoots and naked flashes will offer very harsh light.
Adding a Reflector
Once you have your main (key) light set up for loop lighting, you can start firing away.
But you can also take things a step forward, by carefully adding a reflector on the other side of your subject.
This will bounce light back up into your subject’s face, and should keep your subject looking nice and bright. So if you’re looking to eliminate any drama, the addition of a reflector can be a nice touch.
Adding a Backlight
If you want to take things even further, go ahead and add a backlight to your setup.
This should point at the backdrop, and will create a slight halo effect, like this:
It’s a great way to separate the subject from the background, and just looks all-around professional.
Loop Lighting Vs Rembrandt Lighting
If you’ve spent some time researching lighting patterns, you’ve probably come across another common option:
Rembrandt lighting is very similar to loop lighting, in that it involves putting a light up and to the side.
And it gives a result like this:
But look closely, and you can see the clear difference between Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting:
While Rembrandt lighting produces a triangle of light on the subject’s cheek, loop lighting doesn’t have a full triangle at all. Instead, the triangle is broken because the light is placed closer to the zero degree marker.
So Rembrandt light requires a light source that’s farther off to the side. This results in a much stronger nose shadow (as well as stronger overall shadows), and in more dramatic images.
In other words:
If you want drama, then Rembrandt lighting is a great option.
But if you want all-around flattering light, loop lighting is the better choice.
Loop Lighting: Conclusion
Loop lighting is very common, and for a good reason:
It makes pretty much everyone look good.
So try out loop lighting on a portrait subject.
I’m betting that they’ll be pleased by the result!
Loop lighting is lighting that comes slightly from the side of the subject and creates a slight shadow across the face (assuming you’re doing a portrait photoshoot). It’s somewhat three dimensional, but also avoids creating an ultra-dramatic result.
Loop lighting is technically meant for portrait subjects, and it’ll work for pretty much anyone (though note that it has a slimming effect). You can use loop lighting for still life and product photography as well, but you won’t be able to use the nose shadow as a reference.
Loop lighting is very flattering, and it’ll create depth while also keeping the images relatively bright (and less dramatic). So it’s great for situations where you want a flattering, three-dimensional image, but you don’t want to take things over the top.
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.