The term “Rembrandt Lighting” is a term that tends to come up whenever photographers talk about lighting in portrait photography. Rembrandt lighting is characterized by a triangle of light under the eye of the subject on the less illuminated side of the face. Some get technical with the definition and claim that it’s not true Rembrandt lighting if the triangle is not the same width and height of the subject’s nose. Others are less worried about technicalities and use the term to describe the overall mood and style of an lighting setup without getting their ruler out and measuring that little triangle of light.
Why is Rembrandt Lighting desirable?
- It can create a dynamic and compelling look, mood, and feel to an image, providing definition and drama to a subject’s face.
- It’s possibly the easiest method to produce a dramatic result with a minimum of lighting equipment required.
Backing up a bit
Rembrandt was a Dutch painter who lived in the early 1600’s. Some experts estimate that he has painted over 300 paintings in his lifetime. Think about the amount of practice and understanding of how light works you would gain after painting 300 paintings. With today’s digital cameras, we can take 300 pictures in a matter of seconds. Perhaps we would do well to slow down and study how the light is interacting with our subject as Rembrandt surely did before crafting his masterpieces.
Indeed, the setup required to get this quality of light is simple. Most photography references indicate that you need your main light (or key) to illuminate one side of your subject while a reflector or bounce card fills in some of the shadow on the opposite side of the subject at about half the amount of illumination. This reflector softens the harshness of the shadows that are cast on the face and can be adjusted to achieve the desired result.
The same setup could be accomplished with two light sources, one being set to about half the power of the key light.
Do you need expensive studio lighting in order to create Rembrandt lighting for your portraits?
Of course not!
It’s probable that Rembrandt’s only light sources for the subjects he was painting were windows in his workshop. Remember this shot from our recent post on “Using Natural Window Light to Photograph Children“?
With a slight adjustment to the angle of the baby’s face to the window light source, the shape and size of that triangle of light on his cheek would change. With the right adjustment you could easily match the look of Rembrandt Lighting using a single window as a light source.
Experiment with the distance and angle from the light source to the subject and see how the shadows and triangle of light change.