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Rembrandt Lighting Photography: What It Is and How to Use It

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Rembrandt lighting is one of the most iconic lighting techniques used by portrait photographers.

Read on to find out how to use this Rembrandt lighting technique. You’ll take amazing portraits full of moodiness and interest.

Atmospheric portrait of a male model shot with Rembrandt lighting
The Rembrandt Light. Image Credit: Patrick Bogaert.

What Is Rembrandt Lighting?

Portrait photographers have a few main classic lighting setups to choose from. You can create many of them in their most basic form with a single light source, such as a speedlight.

The type of lighting isn’t important. But it needs to be a light source you can control. Natural light isn’t easy to control as a main light source.

Some of these setups include butterfly light and loop light. The names are often assigned after the type or shape of the shadows the light(s) casts on the model’s face.

 Low key self-portrait of a male model using butterfly lighting setup
Self-portrait using butterfly lighting.

Rembrandt lighting, instead, takes its name from the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt. He was a master of the chiaroscuro technique. And he often used this kind of light in his paintings, particularly in his self-portraits.

Looking at his paintings, you’ll notice one light portrait lighting. How the short lighting hits the subject’s face is interesting.

Rembrandt self portrait painting
Rembrandt loved to paint himself with this kind of light. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

As you can see from the image above, this lighting setup is a split light setup. It creates a triangle of light under the model’s eye on the shadowed side. This is on the opposite to side of the key light.

Why Use Rembrandt Lighting?

Rembrandt lighting is a dramatic light. It is one of those moody setups that plays with chiaroscuro. This technique from paintings makes use of strong contrasts between light and dark.

These are usually bold contrasts that affect the whole composition. As such, this is a kind of lighting that suits low key photography best.

A dark and moody portrait of a male model shot with Rembrandt lighting
Example of Rembrandt light in a low key image.

Rembrandt lighting will draw the viewer’s attention where the light triangle is from. This is because of the contrast between the dark and the light.

It also adds a mysterious feel to the image.

On top of this, it’s a simple setup to master. And you can create Rembrandt lighting with a single speedlight, for a punchy portrait.

How to Create the Rembrandt Lighting Setup

When it comes to recreating a particular lighting setup, you have to remember that the style is defined by the position of the lights in relation to the model. The angle you will photograph the model from doesn’t affect this.

Butterfly light, for example, will always be as long as the key light placed in front of and above the model. This is regardless of the camera’s position.

Don’t place the catchlight at eye level. Instead, use the portrait lighting to create the look you’re after.

A dark and moody portrait of a male model shot with Rembrandt lighting
Moving the camera to my side to take this self-portrait did not change the butterfly light pattern on my face. // Self-portrait of the photographer illustrating butterfly light on 3/4 profile view

The scheme below shows the position of the lights with respect to the model. These create the most common lighting setups.

Diagram showing the relative position of light, camera and model to create some of the most common lighting setups used in studio portrait photography.
This scheme shows the relative position of light, camera and model to create some of the most common lighting setups used in studio portrait photography.

Rembrandt lighting (the right image in the second row) requires the key light to be placed to the side of the model’s face. This is similar to Split and Loop Light.

In creating a Rembrandt lighting setup, it is easy to work with studio lights that incorporate a so-called modeling light. This allows you to have a preview in real-time of the shadows cast on the model’s face.

You can also put your smartphone on your speedlight and use your flashlight as a modeling light.

Where to Position Your Key Light

  1. Place your key light sideways, at a wider angle than 45 degrees, with respect to your model’s nose;
  2. Lift your light above the model, angled down;
  3. Refine the light position, height, and orientation. A triangle of light is visible under the model’s eye opposite to the side where the key light is;
  4. Check that the triangle will not be larger than the eye and that it will not “break” the shadow cast from the model’s nose. Otherwise, you will create a Loop light (the one above the Rembrandt lighting in the previous scheme).
Simple Rembrandt Light setup.
Simple Rembrandt Lighting setup.

Where to Position Your Camera

The angle from which you photograph your model has no effect on the type of light that will appear. But it will alter the image’s mood. That’s because it will affect whether you are using a broad light or a short light.

Broad light means that the side of the face illuminated by the key light is close to the camera. Short light means that the side of the face illuminated by the key light is far from the camera.

With software like Set.a.light 3D by Elixxier, it is easy to practice lighting setups. You can see in real-time how the image changes when you move the lights and the camera around on the virtual set.

Rembrandt lighting studio setup
In the simulated setup shown above, you see the effect of moving the camera relative to the model. From left to right we have short, split and broad light.

As usual, you can try less conventional angles. Try shooting from below to give to your model some power.

A dark and moody portrait of a male model shot with Rembrandt lighting
By photographing your model from slightly below, you will naturally empower him/her. Image Credit: Patrick Bogaert.

How to Build From the Basic Rembrandt Lighting Setup

The basic Rembrandt lighting setup consists of a single speedlight with no modifiers. This will create very hard light. It’ll result in very contrasted images that may be ok for some punchy male portraits.

Since the pattern of the shadow is created by the key light, you can use a fill light. This can be a second speed light, a reflector, or a wall to bounce back some light. You can use this to fill the shadows for a gentler and more flattering setup.

Atmospheric portrait of a male model shot with Rembrandt lighting
A softer setup is more pleasant while retaining the Rembrandt lighting quality. Image Credit: Patrick Bogaert.

A third light hidden behind the model and pointed at the background will act as a separation light. This will allow you to better isolate your model from the background.

Conclusion

Rembrandt lighting is one of the most iconic lighting setups. It’s easy to use to add interest to your low key portraiture.

Rembrandt lighting suits both male and female models. Especially if you soften the contrast in the chiaroscuro with a fill light. You can use it with both color and black and white photography.

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4 comments
  1. Have you ever considered about including
    a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. Nevertheless think of if you added some great photos or video clips to give your posts more,
    “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos,
    this site could undeniably be one of the best in its
    niche. Superb blog!

  2. High contrast lighting is called Tenebrism, associated with the Renaissance artist Carravagio. The is very little transition of the light and shade areas. No middle tones, very little reflected light in shadow areas. Subtle modeling of light and shade is called Chiaroscuro as in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Chiaroscuro means ‘light IN shade.’ The ares of reflected light will reveal slight areas of light in even the darkest shadows giving them a greater sense of depth and dimension.

  3. Nice job. Too many people on the web are saying you get Rembrandt lighting by putting the key 45 degrees up and 45 over. That doesn’t work in my experience. Solid information like this is very helpful, especially when the misinformation abounds.

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