There are many viable lighting techniques for film and photography, some cheap and simple, and some complex and costly. Short lighting is one technique that continues to grow more and more popular amongst photographers, but what is short lighting photography? We’ll be defining and breaking down the technique, explaining what it’s used for and why, and taking a look at some short lighting examples. This is everything you need to know about short lighting. Let’s get started with a definition.

Short lighting photography

Let’s define short lighting

Our ultimate guides to filmmaking terminology and cinematography vocabulary are great resources for looking up definitions if you encounter any other unfamiliar terms or phrases.

There are a few different portrait lighting techniques out there and they all revolve around the amount, shape, and direction of shadows on the face. Almost like phases of the moon, this ranges from zero shadows down to faces with only a sliver of light on the edge. Short lighting is on the more shadowy side of this spectrum.


What is short lighting?

Short lighting is a lighting technique used primarily in portrait photography in which the far side of a subject’s face is lit relative to the camera. This leaves the near side of the face darker or entirely shadowed. The far side of the face is also known as the “narrow side,” and the side closer to camera is also referred to as the “broad side” of the face. Executing this lighting technique well has just as much to do with the angle of the subject’s face and the positioning of the camera as it does with the light itself.

Short Lighting Photography Characteristics:

  • Distinguishes the narrow and broad sides of the face
  • High in contrast
  • The angle of a subject’s face determines the intensity

lighting examples

When and how to use short lighting

This is a fairly simple technique to pull off and can be easier to execute on a low budget than other lighting techniques. While more complex short lighting setups are possible with high-end equipment, all that is needed for a basic setup is a single light source and some careful positioning.

The following video shows the difference between broad and short lighting in portrait photography and also showcases some nice examples.

Short lighting photography setup

For a simple, top-down view of a typical setup, take a look at this diagram. Depending on the position of the light and subject, the camera can be positioned anywhere on the opposite side.

Short lighting diagram

Short lighting diagram

This lighting technique is often brought up in discussions alongside broad lighting. The two lighting techniques can be thought of as opposites in terms of which side of a subject’s face is lit. For a rundown of the pros and cons of each lighting style, check out the video below.

Broad and short lighting in portrait photography

This technique is most commonly used in portrait photography but that doesn’t automatically mean that it is the best choice for any given portrait session. The shadowy, high-contrast nature leads to moody and dramatic images. Check out our tips for shooting high contrast photography.

We assembled a collection of short lighting examples using StudioBinder's storyboard creator. Click the image to see the entire collection — you can even download a copy for future inspiration for your next shoot.

This dramatic style can be inappropriate for lighter fare. Be sure to keep tone and audience in mind when deciding if this lighting technique is the right call for a particular project.

And, once you’ve made that decision, you can plan out your next photoshoot with our free portrait shot list and read up on our portrait photography tips for selecting the best lenses for portrait photography


What is Butterfly Lighting?

You are now equipped with everything you need to know about this type of portrait lighting to decide if it is the right style to use for your next photoshoot. But, there are other lighting techniques to consider. Butterfly lighting is another popular technique in portrait photography. Learn all about it, up next.

Up Next: Butterfly lighting explained →
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