Split lighting isn’t the most common portrait lighting technique out there–but, with careful preparation and the right subject, you can use it for stunning images.
So in this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about split lighting.
And when you’re finished, you’ll know how to create beautiful, split-lit shots, the kind that will impress even the best photographers.
Let’s get started.
What Is Split Lighting?
Split lighting is an ultra-dramatic lighting pattern, one known for its potential to create intense images and emphasize texture.
It looks like this:
As you can probably guess, it’s referred to as “split lighting” because of how it splits the face in two.
Now, split lighting is not especially common.
It’s just too dramatic to be used in family and couple photoshoots, and it’s not considered an especially “flattering” lighting pattern, so you won’t see it in, say, corporate headshots.
But split lighting does have its place, and can be used for more Hollywood-style images, glamour shots, and other creative portraits. When done right, it can give you some fantastic results!
Also note that it’s possible to create a “reduced” split lighting effect, by punching up the shadowed part of the face with a fill light or a reflector (an option which I’ll discuss in more detail below!).
When Should You Use Split Lighting?
Split lighting is great for dramatic portraits.
For instance, if you’re photographing a grizzled old man with an axe on his shoulder, split lighting would be the perfect lighting pattern.
Split lighting can also create stunning glamour shots, but you have to be careful, because it tends to highlight textures and blemishes on subjects’ faces.
Note that split lighting is an especially easy type of lighting pattern to create (the standard setup only involves a single light), so you can use the setting sun or a window to produce split lighting.
In other words: You don’t have to stay confined to your studio.
Now let’s take a look at how you can produce a great split-lighting setup:
How to Create Split Lighting: Step-By-Step
As I explained above, split lighting is one of the easiest lighting setups to create.
For split lighting, you need one light. That’s it.
This can be a window, a lamp, the sun, anything. You just need a light, and you need to be able to easily position your subject in relation to it (e.g., it can’t be on the ceiling of a room; this won’t allow for enough flexibility to be successful).
If you’re working with a flash, you’ll probably also want a light stand, because this will allow you to position the light at a nice height. And you’ll need a trigger, so that you can hook up your camera to the flash and fire it from a distance.
I’d also recommend a flash modifier of some sort. Sure, you can do split lighting with an unmodified flash, and it’ll create a very interesting, harsh effect–but this isn’t what photographers are generally after.
So if you have a modifier on hand, you’ll get the best of both worlds:
You can create intense shots when you need to, but you can also create a softer effect at will.
If you want to have even more flexibility, I recommend purchasing a second light, though a reflector will also work (and you can create one of these out of white cardboard).
Split lighting is very, very simple:
You place the light at a 90-degree angle from your subject.
And it shrouds half the subject’s face in shadow.
By moving the light closer, you’ll get softer shadow transitions, which offer a slightly less dramatic effect.
And by moving the light farther away, you’ll get harsher transitions, which offer a slightly more dramatic effect.
You can also adjust the transitions and the light/dark contrast by adding different modifiers to the light. An umbrella will offer softer lighting (and therefore more gradual shadow transitions and lower contrast) compared to a softbox, which will be softer compared to a small diffuser, which will be softer compared to a naked flash.
By the way, you may be wondering:
How high should I place the light?
I’d recommend experimenting here, but start with the light on a level with your subject. I don’t generally recommend dropping it lower (this will give a very ghoulish result), but raising the light slightly higher can shift the shadows. Be mindful of the subject’s hair; if it has a lot of volume, shifting the light upward can create unwanted shadows from above.
For proper split lighting, you’ll want the subject to face straight ahead (relative to the 90-degree angle of the light source). This is essential, because if the subject turns toward the light, you’ll end up with Rembrandt lighting (discussed below), or even loop lighting, which is less dramatic than the split lighting pattern you’re trying to pull off.
Adding a Reflector
Once you have your basic setup, you’re free to start taking photos.
However, if you want to make the shot slightly less dramatic, try adding a reflector opposite the light source, so as to push light onto the dark side of the subject’s face.
You can also try putting a second light source instead, which will offer more control. You want to be careful, however; too much light will get rid of the dramatic effect entirely, and you’ll be left with a much flatter portrait.
Adding a Background Light
A background light works well for most portrait setups, and split lighting is no exception.
Simply position a light behind your subject and point it at the background. You’ll get a slight halo effect behind your subject, which will help create depth and emphasize the subject’s outline.
Adding Gels for Color
Here’s one more split lighting trick you can try:
Put a colored gel on your flash.
The effect won’t necessarily look natural, but it’ll give creative results, like this:
Note that you can use different gel colors on your fill light compared to your main (key) light. Try mixing complementary colors (such as yellow and blue), or use analogous colors (such as red and orange).
Really, once you’ve added a few flash gels to your bag, the sky’s the limit!
Split Lighting Vs Rembrandt Lighting
If you’re just learning about the different types of lighting, you may have come across both split lighting and Rembrandt lighting.
Both are very dramatic, and both can be pulled off with a single light.
So what’s the difference between these two lighting patterns?
As you know, split lighting divides the face in two.
And while positioning a Rembrandt lighting setup is very similar, you need to move the light out toward the photographer (so that it sits somewhere between 90 degrees and 45 degrees or so). That way, you’ll be able to create a triangle of light on your subject’s cheek, which is the standard Rembrandt identifier.
While both types of lighting are dramatic, split lighting is generally more intense (unless you add a lot of fill light). Rembrandt lighting is moody, but it can also be very gradual and soft, depending on your setup.
So when you’re looking for drama, go with split lighting.
And when you’re looking for something less intense, Rembrandt lighting is worth a try.
Split Lighting: Conclusion
Split lighting is dramatic, and it doesn’t have the same level of popularity as, say, Rembrandt lighting.
But it’s very powerful, and can be great for shots where you want to create intense, striking portraits.
So remember the basic lighting setup–and you’ll be able to get beautiful, split-lit portraits whenever you need!
Split lighting is a form of dramatic sidelighting. You position the light 90 degrees to the right or left of the subject, which results in the subject being split in two.
Split lighting is more common for male portraits, where skin and beard texture can be enhanced to great effect. But you can also use split lighting for female fashion photos, and you’ll sometimes find dramatic, split-lit portraits between the pages of glamour magazines.
I’d recommend using split lighting when you’re after a very dramatic look, or when you want to bring out intense textures on a subject. Split lighting divides the subject in two, which adds a lot of depth, but also brings out small details; for softer portraits, this is less desirable.
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.