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

This article is about one of the most iconic lighting techniques used by portrait photographers, specifically Rembrandt lighting.
Read on to find out how to use this lighting technique for 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 Light?

Portrait photographers have a few main classic lighting setups to chose from. Many can be created in their most basic form with a single speedlight.
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 light, 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.
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 Light?

Rembrandt light 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 right to the eye 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.
It is a simple setup to master and can be successfully done with a single speedlight, for a punchy portrait.

How to Create the Rembrandt Light 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 and above the model. This is regardless of the camera’s position.

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 commonly used 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.

As you can see from the scheme above, Rembrandt light (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 lighting setup, it is easy to work with studio lights that incorporate a so-called modelling 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 flash light as modelling 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. Rise your light slightly above the model, angled down;
  3. Refine the light position, height and orientation so that 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 light in the previous scheme).
Simple Rembrandt Light setup.
Simple Rembrandt Light setup.

Where to Position Your Camera

Like I said before, 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 relatively 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 Setup

The basic Rembrandt lighting setup consists of a single speedlight with no modifiers. This will create a very hard light, resulting 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 light quality. Image Credit: Patrick Bogaert.

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

Conclusion

Rembrandt light is one of the most iconic lighting setups. It’s easy to implement to add interest to your low key portraiture.
It suits both male and female models, particularly if you soften the contrast in the chiaroscuro with a fill light. You can use it with both colour and black and white photography.

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