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Out on location, we’re looking for suitable lighting or making the best of the lighting that is available. In the studio (or on location with studio lighting), we can take complete control over the light we use. There are few if any limits if we know what we’re doing.

Studio lighting is a little bit like photographic composition – the rules are made to be broken, but you break them best when you understand what you’re doing. So, when it comes to using one light or more and positioning it on the left or the right, understanding what the great portrait masters did is an excellent starting point.

Traditionally, portrait photographers would be trained to use a variation of short lighting for most of their subjects, at least in the beginning. The opposite of short (or narrow) lighting is broad lighting. Here’s how you tell the difference.

If your subject is facing the camera front on, then neither side of the face is dominant. They are equal. In this situation, you can have neither short nor broad lighting because these descriptions rely on the face being angled one way or the other towards the camera.

However, generally we have our subject at a slight angle to the camera, simply because the front on pose (in our culture at least) is considered stilted or uninteresting. When the face is angled, the side of the face pointing towards the camera is the broad side, the opposite side is the short side.

Assuming your subject’s nose is relatively straight and his or her ears normally positioned, you can visually measure the distance between the nose and the ears to determine which is which. The side with the longer distance between nose and ear is the broad side, the side with the shorter distance is the short side.

When your key light (also called the main light) is positioned over the broad side of the face, this is broad lighting. If the light is on the other side, illuminating the short side of the face, this is short lighting. If you think about it, your lighting pattern can change from broad to short simply by having your subject turn his or her head to the other side. The terms broad and short are simply instructive – but they can be useful to understand, especially if you read more in-depth texts on portrait lighting. 

Interested in portrait lighting? We finish off our series on portraiture in this issue, but if you subscribe, you have access to over 50 back issues - so what have you got to lose? Read all about it in the current issue of Better Photography (Issue 105). Click on the link below to subscribe - plus you get immediate access to 50 back issues full of informative material and inspirational ideas! Use coupon code BP40 to get 40% off - just $29.88 for an annual subscription.