Photography Lighting

Rembrandt Lighting in Photography

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Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about Rembrandt lighting.

After reading this guide, you’ll know what Rembrandt lighting is, how to use it in your photos, why it’s important, and lots more.

Let’s dive in!

What Is Rembrandt Lighting?

The essence of Rembrandt lighting lies in achieving something quite beautiful: a triangle of light under the eye on the shadowed side of the model’s face.

Named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt, this method artfully uses contrast to create images that resonate deeply with human emotions.

It’s rather like adding a pinch of mystery to the familiarity of a face, sparking a sense of intrigue, just like the first time you watched a Film Noir.

Picture yourself standing before a series of dramatic, almost theatrically moody portraits, each filled with intricate traces of light and shadows.

The faces seem to tell a story, hiding as much as they reveal. Welcome to the world of Rembrandt lighting – a widely revered technique in portrait photography.

Imagine standing next to a window on a sunny day. Half your face is bathed in warm light, creating a small, sweet triangle of bright sunshine on your shadowed cheek, below your eye.

That little slice of brilliance, my friends, captures the essence of Rembrandt lighting.

The angle from which the model is photographed has a large influence on the image’s mood. It’s like serving up different sides of a multifaceted personality – each unique, each powerful in its own way.

Coupled with the right studio lights, be it a key light that punctuates sharpness, a fill light that adds softness, or a third light that separates, the result consistenly draws attention and intensifies the impact of the photo.

Also certain factors like a simple black backdrop, or shooting in color or black and white accentuates the effect.

You might be wondering “Well, how do I get started?” The encouraging news is that once you have your DSLR or mirrorless camera and a decent lens like an 85mm or 105mm, especially for close-cropped headshots, you’re pretty much equipped.

Add some optional light modifiers like reflectors into the mix, and you’re well on your way. And while you need to position your key light accurately to create that distinctive triangle, don’t be afraid to experiment with various camera settings till you get the Rembrandt vibe just right.

“But what if I don’t have all that gear?” you might ask.

Well, the beauty of Rembrandt lighting is that it can also be achieved with good old Mother Nature herself.

By manipulating natural light from a window – altering the time of day or using curtains to guide the light flow- you can achieve stunning Rembrandt lit portraits.

6 Ways to Use Rembrandt Lighting in Photography

How can photographers achieve Rembrandt lighting in their photographs? Let’s unpack this intricate but worthwhile technique together.

You can think of it as assembling a puzzle, a game of hide-and-seek between light and shadow to strike a perfect balance.

Firstly, picture yourself as a painter, just like Rembrandt himself, with your camera as your brush and light as your paint.

The key to succeeding in this lighting technique lies in understanding the source of light and the impact of angles.

Here are the 6 ways you can use Rembrandt lighting in your photos:

1. Single Light Source Setup

The first way to use Rembrandt lighting is with a single light source setup.

The single light source setup is a classic setup that involves using a single light source such as a strobe or softbox.

The angle you position your single light source is at 45-degrees to the subject and slightly above eye level.

Rembrandt lighting 45 degrees
Rembrandt lighting 45-degrees

This angle will create that triangle of light on your subject’s cheek with the opposite side of their face being in the shadow.

Rembrandt lighting single light source
Rembrandt lighting single light source

2. Natural Light Setup

The second way to use Rembrandt lighting is with a natural light setup.

Natural light being from the sun, of course.

The goal here will be to place your subject near an object where natural light is coming from one side such as a door or window or in the shade outdoors.

Similar to the single light setup, you’ll want to position your subject so the natural light is hitting your subject at a 45-degree angle.

If the shadows are too strong on the other side of the face, you may need to use a reflector to bounce some of the light back onto the shadowed side of their face.

Rembrandt lighting natural light
Rembrandt lighting natural light

3. Loop Lighting Variation

The third way to use Rembrandt lighting is with a loop lighting variation.

Loop lighting is a slight modification of Rembrandt lighting where the triangle of light that is created connects with the shadow under the nose.

To create this lighting variation, you’ll want it to be a bit less than 45-degrees and raise it up a bit slightly.

You’ll want it to be in-between 0-degree and 45-degree angle so around 30-degrees is usually good.

Rembrandt lighting loop lighting variation
Rembrandt lighting loop lighting variation

4. Multiple Light Sources

The fourth way to use Rembrandt lighting in photography is with multiple light sources.

While the classic Rembrandt lighting involves only a single light source, you can bring in additional lights to help you control your shadows and highlights more precisely.

For example, you can introduce a fill light as a second light on the shadow side of your subject’s face to help soften the shadows.

5. Using Modifiers

The fifth way to use Rembrandt lighting in photography is with the help of modifiers.

You can add modifiers to your light source to help soften the triangle of light.

Modifiers such as softboxes, beauty dishes, and grids are great at controlling the quality and direction of light.

A softbox is an excellent choice for creating a soft light with softer shadows, whereas using a light source without a modifier is an excellent choice if you want more contrast for a dramatic look.

soft Rembrandt lighting due to modifiers
soft Rembrandt lighting due to modifiers

6. Adjusting Angles and Heights

The sixth way to use Rembrandt lighting in photography is by adjusting and experimenting with angles and heights.

Small changes to the angle and height of your light source can greatly impact the look of your Rembrandt lighting.

Choosing to lower or raise your light source can change the placement of the triangle of light and the shadows on your subject’s face.

If you position the light source lower than eye level, then this will cast longer shadows and vice versa.

Who Can Benefit From Using Rembrandt Lighting In Photography?

Anyone who aims to add depth, drama, and a naturally focused attention to their portraits can benefit from this technique.

It’s particularly valuable for portrait photographers of all levels, from beginners just venturing into the world of photography, to seasoned professionals looking to elevate their art.

Think of Rembrandt lighting as a strategic chess move. With careful placement of your key light, you create an effective play of light and shadow on your model’s face.

The subtle triangle of light it forms may remind you of the glow that appears on an apple when light shines on it from the side.

This is similar to the effect that Rembrandt lighting produces in photography, boasting a perfect merger of light and shadow.

The beauty of this technique lies in its versatility. You could be photographing a rugged, bearded man releasing an air of mystery and intensity, or a delicate, smiling woman exuding warmth and softness.

Rembrandt lighting emphasizes their distinct facial features making each photograph striking in every aspect.

And this is achievable in both color and black and white photography which gives room for creative exploration.

Regarding equipment, you don’t need to break the bank purchasing high-end studio gadgets. You’ll need a camera, a suitable lens, like an 85mm or 105mm for close-cropped headshots, and optional modifiers like reflectors.

And for those genuine lovers of natural elements, sunlight through your window can be your key light in achieving Rembrandt lighting as well.

Fun fact, you even have some control regarding the intensity of this natural light by playing with the curtains or the time of day for your shoot.

Just like turning a dimmer switch up and down to influence the mood and ambiance in your living room, adjusting these variables can change the mood in your photographs.

Overall, experimentation is encouraged.

Try different settings, play around with your angles, and let your creativity flow.

When Is Rembrandt Lighting Commonly Used In Photography?

This well-loved technique is most often used in portrait photography.

When successfully applied, Rembrandt lighting can give your portraits an almost painterly quality with the perfect balance of light and dark, elevating your subject’s features, and drawing the viewer’s attention just where you want it to be.

Every time you set out for a shoot, remember Rembrandt lighting as your very own dramatic tool to create compelling portraits with an attention-grabbing effect.

Whether it’s a mood-laden black and white shot or a vibrant portrait full of color.

Why Should Photographers Consider Using Rembrandt Lighting Techniques?

Why should photographers consider using Rembrandt lighting techniques?

Well, let me introduce you to the magic of Rembrandt lighting the same way someone once did for me.

Imagine you’re a painter, and your canvas is a photographer’s backdrop.

Your paint? That’s light. And your brush is the camera.

Now, what if I told you that you could paint not just an image, but a mood? That, my friend, is the essence of Rembrandt lighting.

The beauty of Rembrandt lighting lies in its versatility. You can use it with any gender, and it works equally well with color or black and white photography.

Perhaps you remember a bold, stunning photo you’ve seen where the subject seemed to leap from the frame? Chances are, Rembrandt lighting was at play there.

This technique not only adds depth and drama, but it guides your viewer’s eyes straight to your subject. It’s like the leading lines in a landscape photo or the rule of thirds in a portrait – it subtly enhances the impact of the photo.

So, why should you consider using Rembrandt lighting? Because it allows you to bring a piece of the drama, mystery, and beauty of the Old Masters like Rembrandt to your own work.

Quite literally, it helps you paint with light, bringing a captivating depth and contrast to your images.

What mood does Rembrandt lighting give off?

Rembrandt lighting creates a mood of depth and drama by emphasizing the interplay between light and shadow, adding a sense of mystery and emotional intensity to the subject.

Is Rembrandt lighting a low key lighting technique?

Yes, Rembrandt lighting is often associated with low key lighting, as it involves a prominent interplay of light and shadow resulting in a darker overall tonal range in the photograph.