Rembrandt Lighting, The Ultimate Guide

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Rembrandt lighting is one of the most well-known lighting setups in portrait photography.

It’s a step further from the Loop Lighting we saw previously, but less dramatic than split lighting.

In this lesson, we’ll go over what Rembrandt lighting is and how you can create it (with just one light) in your own work.

What is Rembrandt Lighting?

“Self-Portrait ” by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)

Rembrandt lighting got its name from the great Dutch 17th-century painter Rembrandt who often used this pattern of light in his portraits to great effect. The goal is to mainly illuminate one side of the face while creating a small inverted triangle of light on the subject’s cheek opposite of the light source.

Unlike loop lighting, where the shadow of the nose and cheek aren’t supposed to touch (thus creating the “loop”), with Rembrandt lighting they should meet and merge.

This creates the triangle of light in the middle.

It’s a method that and is very flattering especially for people with a strong cheekbone structure or more “round” faces.

As we saw earlier in the introduction, moving the light more off-axis introduces more shadows, thereby introducing more drama and a more defined sculpting of the subject’s features. The use of Rembrandt Lighting thus creates more mood and a darker feel to your image.

This also leads to a chiaroscuro effect (strong contrasts, shape-defining light), where the dark side of the face is defined in silhouette against a bright(er) background.

The benefit of Rembrandt lighting though is that it can introduce this mysterious and dark mood while still keeping both eyes in the light. (Unlike split lighting which we’ll see next)

Ideally, both eyes also have a catchlight which helps to brighten up the moodiness of the images, and keeps them from going “dead”.

Rembrandt himself often used window light as he didn’t have any artificial lights available. Because of the size, this resulted mostly in very diffuse light and is the main reason why we call diffused light “painterly” light.

Of course, Rembrandt lighting can be created with almost any light source, both hard and diffused. The resulting shadows will just be more defined.

How To Create Rembrandt Lighting

Just like all the light setups in this course, Rembrandt lighting is relatively easy to set up and only requires a single light source.

At its most basic level, it’s created by placing your light source high up and approximately 45 degrees off-axis of your subject’s nose.

As always people differ, so you’ll have to play around with the light because the difference lies in the details.

Camera Position

As you know the position of the camera has no influence on the light pattern. You’ll just see the effect from a different side.

So depending on the effect you want to achieve, and the face structure of your subject (round vs small) you can choose to use the Rembrandt lighting in a “broad” (broadening and less moody) or “short” (slimming and moodier) version.

In portrait photography, Rembrandt Lighting is often mistaken with short lighting, and used for any lighting where “a single light source is used to light about half of the face, while the other half of the face is mostly in shadow.”

This is because it can often be tricky to get the triangle of light just right.

Position Of The Light

To be technically correct, the triangle of light shouldn’t be wider than the eye or extend below the subject’s nose for the lighting to be Rembrandt lighting.

Careful positioning of the light is thus needed and will depend largely on the face structure of the subject. If they have a small nose or flat bridge of the nose, it may be difficult to create enough shadow with their nose to close the triangle.

In any case, the light must be positioned higher than the subject so that the shadow from their nose can fall down towards the cheek. When you’re using a larger modifier (or window) this can become more difficult. If needed you can use a flag to prevent light that’s coming from to low to reach your subject.

You can fine-tune the size and position of the triangle by having your subject slowly turn their head until the triangle is the length you want it to be.

Having a studio strobe with a modeling light available can make it a lot easier, in this case, to get the position of the light and subject just right. This will allow you to see an instant preview and make adjustments as needed. If you want, using a standard house lamp also lets you see the effect in real time and help determine the position of the flash.

Looking at your subject from the position of your light, or from the position of your subject to the light, are some easy tricks for seeing if any of the light will reach the other cheek.

Take some test shots and adjust as needed. Do so in small increments until you have it just right, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments to it as needed throughout the shoot.

Soft vs Hard Light

As we saw earlier, Rembrandt himself used window lights to illuminate his subjects. This resulted in a diffused and “painterly” effect in his paintings.

We now have a plethora of choice when it comes to modifiers. This enables you to reproduce the painterly effect by using a large softbox for example or just use a bare flash with a reflector to create hard shadows.

All the normal “rules” of soft vs hard light still apply, of course, so be careful to choose the right light for your subject and goal.

Lighting Up The Shadows

Rembrandt lighting is often used together with a reflector, V-flat or fill light to bring some detail back into the shadows on the subject’s face.

Place the reflector or fill light on the opposite side of the key light (the shadow side of the face) at about eye level. Play around with this and make some test shots to make sure that the fill light is illuminating the face of the model.

You can use varying degrees of fill to decrease the contrast of the shadow created by your main light. Move your reflector closer or further to change the ratio as we saw in the Inverse Square Law lesson. Just be careful not to add so much fill light so that the triangle disappears.

If you don’t have a reflector, get yourself a suitable substitute like we saw in the DIY and hacks lesson.

Mind The Catchlights

As stated above, make sure both eyes also have a catchlight to brighten up the moodiness of the image and keep them from going “dead”.


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