Split light isn’t one of the most flattering light patterns but it is one of the most dramatic ones. Here’s how to use just one light, placed in the right position, to create a dramatic portrait.

Split lighting is exactly what it sounds like

Split lighting is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a light that divides the face into two equal halves. One side is the highlight side and the other is the shadow side. This creates high contrast, making it a great lighting pattern for a dramatic effect.

Creating an image with split lighting

Get your subject close to a light source

Split lighting is easier to achieve indoors using natural light from a large window or a studio strobe with a larger softbox. For softer shadows, position your subject close to the light source. For a more contrast look with deeper shadows, position the subject further away. The key is to experiment to see which style you like best for different subjects. When first learning split lighting, be sure to experiment on an assistant and not your subject — especially if it’s a paying client.

The key is a 90-degree angle

Place your subject and yourself at a 90-degree angle. You want the light to only be hitting your subject at a 90-degree angle. This helps to create the look of only one side of your subject’s face having light and the other in a deep shadow.

Look for a line down the center of the subject’s face

To get the line down the center of the subject’s face, have the subject move forward or back from you. If you are using a studio strobe, turning on the modeling lamp will help you see the line.

Photo by Richie Acevedo Jr.

The key is to experiment

Once the subject is in place, you can fine-tune the look by having them move slightly from side to side. Converting the image to black and white will add to the dramatic effect.

With just one light and knowing how to position the subject, you have the recipe for creating a dramatic split lighting portrait.

Lead photo by Richie Acevedo Jr.