If you want your photography to look like art, there are several sources of inspiration you can turn to. We’re also not talking about people like Mondrian, Pollack, or even Goya.
Rembrandt was a working and living artist in the 17th century. His work is one of the most famous in the history of art, and much of it has to do with the way he used light in each composition.
Rembrandt’s spirit lives on today through our own work. In this Rembrandt lighting tutorial, we’ll cover some of the more subtle aspects of this technique. You’ll be launching it like a pro in no time.
What is Rembrandt lighting? Definition, history and heritage
Rembrandt lighting is a popular way to illuminate a portrait. A better question to ask at this point might be: who was Rembrandt in the first place?
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was one of the greatest Dutch Baroque artists to have ever seen the light of day. He was a master portrait painter, including many magnificent interpretations of himself. One aspect of his work that we still love and use ourselves: Rembrandt-style lighting. You will find him in almost every example of his portrait work.
Many tend to associate Rembrandt’s lighting photography with the understated styles of his predecessors, like Caravaggio, but, classically, it’s actually a much more subtle look.
A relevant vocabulary word to remember is the concept of chiaroscuro, which essentially consists of using a highly contrasting ratio of values on the face. If the dark side and the light side differ greatly, you are shooting like a baroque.
You might notice that the five portraits above have something in common, other than the fact that they all appear to be illuminated by a single light source. What exactly is Rembrandt’s “triangle”? How is it used in portrait photography?
What is the Rembrandt triangle?
Rembrandt’s triangle refers to the characteristic bright spot that crosses the dark side of the face, usually directly on the apple of the cheek.
As you can see, we have Rembrandt’s triangle in each of these portraits shown in red. Rembrandt was famous for refining this look and mastering it in his work. Rembrandt style photography uses this same lighting trope – the main light should just embrace the dark side of the face, resulting in a perfect Rembrandt triangle.
Using the Rembrandt triangle to shape light around the subject is our most recommended Rembrandt lighting technique; it serves as the perfect reference point and shows you exactly how the light wraps around the profile of the model.
Why Rembrandt’s lighting technique endures
This portrait style flatters the face while providing enough detail to discern it; a particularly effective approach when there are several faces in the frame. Rembrandt’s light, by nature, highlights the subject, allowing the background to subside to some extent. This is cinematography 101; it keeps the viewer’s eyes where you want them to be.
Overall, it’s a humanistic approach through and through. Rembrandt lighting makes ordinary events and gatherings feel like a story in the making. It’s an iconic look, and it’s more than easy to accomplish in your own work.
How to use Rembrandt lighting in photography
If you are familiar with the three-point lighting pattern of portrait photography, then Rembrandt photography will probably come naturally to you.
It’s essentially the same setup with an offset key light, minimal infill, and an optional kicker; instead of showing the face in all its glory, we worship the viewer, leaving a certain amount of detail to the imagination.
How to create a Rembrandt lighting setup
Rembrandt lighting at home is actually more than easy to achieve. In fact, we would go so far as to say that Rembrandt lighting is all about setup, no more, no less.
What does this mean to you? This means you don’t even need any equipment to do it other than your camera and a face to photograph.
The bare necessities for a luminous portrait of Rembrandt are:
A camera, facing the subject head-on.
A key light, 45 degrees above the subject and 45 degrees to the side (it should hit the light side of the face and brush against the bridge of the nose).
A reflector or bounce card (if you prefer a slightly less dramatic ratio of values on either side of the face).
Your primary light can literally be anything: a floor lamp, a lamppost, a strobe, a flash, or even just the sun. What matters most is the position of your light source in relation to the face you are photographing, which makes it barely on the dark side.
Once everything is up and running, you can experiment with your lighting scheme, making small, unique adjustments to suit your style and preferences.
Some Rembrandt lighting variants that you can try:
Change the position of the main light so that it is at one extreme or another – flooding the subject’s face with light, or barely reaching the dark side of the face.
Play around with different levels and patterns of diffusion – heavy, silent, overhead, or perhaps cutting the light out of a window frame.
Try strange light sources – computer or television screens, broken fluorescent tubes, a sodium vapor lamp (if you can put one).
Stir a little extra filling or maybe a backlight into the mixture.
The elegance of Rembrandt’s scheme lies in its simplicity; it keeps your shot light, all without compromising an ounce of style. It’s the perfect vessel to co-opt and build your own, tailoring your setup to do exactly what you need.
Other than that, it’s really up to you. Give it a try, give it a new twist, and see what you can find.
Rembrandt Lighting Photography: a brand created almost 400 years ago
Rembrandt’s light is undoubtedly one of the greatest triumphs in the history of portraiture. One thing is certain: the man certainly knew what he was doing, and that was long before Hollywood and Fashion Week.
You should definitely try this technique, especially if you are already looking for inspiration in the field. This is a great basic setup to start with, naturally evolving into more advanced lighting arrangements as you continue. Let the sparks fly.
Get the most out of your strobe lights in photography with these tips.
About the Author