Learn when, and how, to achieve Rembrandt lighting!
If I said Rembrandt, what would you think of? A really old painter? Toothpaste? Off camera lighting techniques? If it’s the latter, you’re definitely a photographer and you’re in the right place. Let’s talk about Rembrandt lighting…what it means, how to get it and when to use it!
What is Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is a classic lighting setup, or pattern, that is most often used with off camera flash. It requires as few as one light and is easy to achieve! A Rembrandt lighting setup creates a triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face. The light actually lights the side of the face farthest from the camera.
In true Rembrandt lighting, the light triangle should be no wider than the eye and no longer than the nose. Triangle shaped catchlights in your subject’s eyes are another feature of Rembrandt lighting.
Why is it called Rembrandt lighting?
This lighting setup’s namesake is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Yeah, say that one three times fast. It’s no wonder we just refer to him as Rembrandt. Anyway…
Rembrandt was a 17th-century Dutch painter and printmaker. There’s no Ninja turtle named after him, but he is one of the old world masters. Rembrandt is easily one of the greatest visual artists in history.
Rembrandt employed this lighting style in his paintings and in his self-portraits. Along the way, the technique got named after the master himself. According to legend, Cecil B. Demille coined the term in 1915 on the set of “The Warrens of Virginia.”
You can see the Rembrandt’s famous technique at play in his work, A Polish Nobleman. (Image courtesty the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., online collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22051024)
Why is Rembrandt lighting used?
Rembrandt lighting creates drama and moodiness in a portrait. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the triangle of light on the cheek. Or so the theory goes. The contrast between light and dark is compelling and mysterious, and it makes for an interesting and engaging studio portrait.
How do you achieve Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is one of the first lighting setups studio photographers learn. And you don’t need much in the way of gear. A single flash can be enough! It’s classic and simple, so it’s a great pattern to master straight away.
How do get a 1 light Rembrandt setup?
For a single-light Rembrandt setup, place your main light, or key light, at a 45-degree angle to your subject. Put the light slightly higher than eye level, angled downward. You may need to adjust your subject’s position to get the triangle of light in the right place and the right size. Your subject should be directly in front of the camera, but facing the light source.
Because this lighting pattern plays off the contrast between light and dark, it’s easier to achieve in low key environments. Try shooting against a darker background or in an area where you can eliminate the ambient lighting entirely. That’s not to say you can’t have a Rembrandt pattern in a high key portrait! But it is most often used in dark and moody portraits.
And because your light source needs to be separate from your camera, you’ll need to use some kind of off-camera lighting. A speedlight on your camera’s hotshoe just won’t cut it for this lighting pattern!
2 light Rembrandt setup (or 1 light & reflector)
If super contrasty drama isn’t your jam, you can easily tone down the drama by using a second light or reflector to fill in some of the shadows. Add a second light or reflect at 45 degrees opposite your main light, toward the shadowed side of the face. Remember, we don’t want to eliminate all the shadows, just soften them up some. Start by setting your fill light to 1/2 the power of your main light source.
If you want to see your background or need to create some separation between your subject and background, add another light. A third light, behind your subject pointing toward the backdrop, will light it but not your subject. This can be used with either of the above setups.
Does Rembrandt lighting require strobes?
This is a classic studio lighting pattern. But Rembrandt style lighting doesn’t require strobes. You could use continuous light or even natural light. Heck, you could use a flashlight or a table lamp. Light is light, you just have to know how to control your light source for the desired outcome!
Perfecting the technique
As we said above, true Rembrandt lighting dictates that the triangle of light should be no wider than the eye and no longer than the nose. Try having your subject slowly turn her head to the left or the right to adjust the length of the triangle. It definitely takes some practice and adjusting to get your lighting just right to achieve a true Rembrandt style. Review the images on this page…are they all absolutely “true” Rembrandt lights?
But unless you’re a descendant of the master himself or taking a graded test on lighting, don’t stress the size and shape of the triangle too much. After all, art is subjective. As long as your portrait meets your objectives and is pleasing to you, that’s what is important. Let the old Dutch guy inspire you, not intimidate you.
Other common lighting patterns
Rembrandt lighting is just one of several common lighting patterns used by studio photographers. The others are:
- Butterfly lighting
- Split lighting
- Loop lighting
- Broad lighting
- Short lighting
Split lighting divides the face in half, with one side being properly exposed and the other side is in shadow.
Butterfly lighting is named for the butterfly-shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. This is also called placing the light on axis with the camera.
Loop lighting creates a small shadow of the subject’s nose on his or her cheek. Loop lighting is a lot like Rembrandt lighting, but in loop patterns, the shadow of the nose and the shadow of the cheek do not touch. The two are often confused. And while it’s important to understand the difference, if you like the look of the portrait, that’s what matters more than exactly what you call it, right?
Broad lighting and short lighting aren’t really lighting patterns. They are more styles. Technically you could have a broad Rembrandt setup or a short loop lighting. Broad lighting lights the side of the face closest to the camera. Short lighting lights the side of the face furthest from the camera.
Understanding how to use light in different ways in portraits can take your images from great to positively masterful. Explore the different lighting pattern. Learn what they look like in a portrait, how to set them up and when to use them to flatter your subjects. Once you’ve studied these techniques a bit, you’ll quickly be able to recognize them in other’s work. My husband often teases me that I don’t watch movies anymore…I simply watch lighting.
Start with Rembrandt lighting and master this old world technique, then move on to another. Whether you use off camera flash, continuous light, or natural light doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding and using light to your advantage and to create portraits worthy of the old Dutch dude himself.