Split Lighting in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

If you’re looking to create dramatic, powerful portraits, then split lighting can be a highly effective approach. It’s also very easy to produce, even if you’re an absolute beginner, and it can be done with a single flash (or even a directional source like a window).

That said, the split pattern does require some basic technical skills, and there are several tricks and techniques that you’ll want to bear in mind when starting out. Below, I share everything you need to know to create breathtaking results, and I also offer a variety of examples along the way for inspiration.

What Is Split Lighting?

Split lighting is an ultra-dramatic lighting pattern known for its potential to create intense images and emphasize textures. It’s named so because of how it splits the face in two:

It’s 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 used for corporate headshots. 

But split lighting does have its place and can be used for Hollywood-style images, glamour shots, and other creative portraits. When done right, it can give amazing results.

Also note that it’s possible to create a reduced split effect by shrouding one side of the face in shadow and then punching up the shadowy part of the face with a fill light or a reflector.

When Should You Use the Split Pattern?

The split-light pattern is great for dramatic portraits. For instance, if you’re photographing a grizzled old man with an axe on his shoulder, it can look amazing.

It can also create stunning glamour shots. You have to be careful, however, because it tends to highlight textures and blemishes on subjects’ faces. 

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Note that it’s 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 achieve solid results. In other words, you don’t have to stay confined to your studio!

How to Create Split Lighting: A Step-By-Step Approach

As I explained above, split lighting is one of the easiest patterns to produce. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Make Sure You Have the Right Equipment

To get started, you need one light. That’s it. It can be a window, a lamp, the sun, a flash, etc. You just need a light, and you need to be able to easily position your subject in relation to it (so it can’t be on the ceiling of a room, for example).

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 a split pattern with an unmodified flash, but it’ll create a very harsh effect, which isn’t what photographers are generally after. 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.

Note: If you want even more flexibility, I recommend purchasing a second light, though a reflector will also work (you can create one of these out of white cardboard).

Step 2: Position the Light and Your Subject

The split pattern is very, very simple: You place the light at a 90-degree angle from your subject. That way, it shrouds half the subject’s face in shadow. 

By moving the light closer, you’ll get softer shadow transitions for a slightly less dramatic effect. And by moving the light farther away, you’ll get harsher transitions for 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 create softer lighting (and therefore more gradual shadow transitions) than a softbox, but a softbox will create softer lighting than a small diffuser.

How high should you 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. 

Finally, you’ll want the subject to face straight ahead relative to the 90-degree angle of the light source. This is essential. If the subject turns toward the light, you’ll end up with Rembrandt lighting (discussed below) or even loop lighting, which are both less dramatic than the split pattern you’re trying to pull off.

Step 3: Add 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 using a reflector opposite the light source to push light onto the dark side of the subject’s face. 

You can also try adding 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.

Step 4: Add a Background Light

This step is optional, but a background light can look very nice. So if you have an extra flash or strobe, consider adding it to your setup!

Simply position the 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.

Step 5: Add Gels for Color

This step is also optional, but putting colored gels on your flash can certainly spice up your portraits. The effect won’t necessarily look natural, but it’ll give creative results:

Note that you can use different gel colors on your fill light and background 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 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 characteristic of the Rembrandt pattern. 

While both types of lighting are dramatic, the split pattern 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.

Create Gorgeous Portraits with Split Lighting

The split pattern 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 I’ve shared, and practice your split approach whenever you get the chance. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to achieve consistently beautiful results.

Split Lighting FAQ

What is split lighting?

It’s 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.

Is split lighting good for male portraits or female portraits?

It’s more common in male portraits, where skin and beard textures can be enhanced to great effect. But you can also use it for female fashion photos and dramatic portraits.

When should you use the split pattern?

I’d recommend using the pattern when you’re after a very dramatic look or when you want to bring out intense textures on a 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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