What is Rembrandt Lighting?

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Rembrandt lighting refers to a lighting technique where one side of the face is lit by light and the opposite side in shadow. This technique uses a single light source to produce a dramatic, dark effect that highlights the subject’s facial features. This unique lighting technique is used by both cinematographers and portrait photographers.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, a famous Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, is known for his mastery of chiaroscuro (which is creating shadows by balancing one light source). Rembrandt lighting is known for its signature feature: a triangle-shaped light source that shines on the shadowed side, just below the eye, is a key characteristic. This effect can be seen in Rembrandt’s paintings and self portraits.

What is Rembrandt Lighting?

Rembrandt lighting refers to a lighting technique where one side of the face is lit by light and the opposite side in shadow. This technique uses a single light source to produce a dramatic, dark effect that highlights the subject’s facial features. This unique lighting technique is used by both cinematographers and portrait photographers.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, a famous Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, is known for his mastery of chiaroscuro (which involves creating shadows by balancing one light source). Rembrandt lighting is known for its signature feature: a triangle-shaped light source that shines on the shadowed side, just below the eye, is a key characteristic. This effect can be seen in Rembrandt’s paintings and self portraits.

Why should you use Rembrandt lighting?

For beginners who don’t have the budget to purchase expensive studio lights, Rembrandt lighting can be a great option. Rembrandt lighting is popular among portrait photographers because it creates a mysterious and captivating effect without the need for expensive studio lights.

A primary light source is all you need, along with a reflector. You can use a fill light to create a soft effect that reveals subtle details on the dark side.

Rembrandt Lighting: How to Use It in Photography

These steps will help you create a simple Rembrandt lighting system and capture a compelling portrait.

  1. Pick your shooting location. Rembrandt lighting systems work best when they are in a controlled setting like an indoor studio. This technique is not as effective when you are shooting outdoors with natural light. You can choose a dark background and ask your subject to wear something dark that blends with it, so their face will be prominent.
  2. Choose your main light source. To create a brighter light source for your main light source, you can use a flash or studio lamp. This will ensure lots of contrast with dark shadows, prominent light, and strong light. You can use a softbox, umbrella modifier or natural light from the window to create softer lighting with more detail on the shadowed sides of your face.
  3. Your key light should be positioned. Your subject should be placed against your background. Position your key light approximately five feet from them. The key light should be positioned at a 45-degree angle between the subject’s shoulder and their nose. Use a clamp or light stand to raise the light about two feet above your subject’s eyes. Angle it down to create the signature light diamond in the shadowed portion of your subject’s face.
  4. You can choose between short or broad lighting. Broad or short lighting can be used when you aim your main light towards your subject. A broad lighting setup is one where the main light illuminates only the area closest to the camera while casting shadows on the rest. Broad lighting is opposite of short lighting. The subject’s far side will be illuminated while the rest of the face will be in shadow. With fewer shadows, broad lighting highlights the highest points of the face. Short lighting can bring out wrinkles and scars by increasing contrast and shadows.
  5. You can play with the position of the light triangle. The Rembrandt triangle’s signature light color should be subtle and small on the subject’s face. It should touch their nose but not extend beyond their eyes. This is the best way to start, but you can adjust the Rembrandt triangle’s location to suit your mood.
  6. A reflector can be used as a fill-light. Although a second light is not necessary for Rembrandt lighting effects, a reflector can soften the effect similar to a fill lamp. It will reveal details on the shadow side of your subject. The reflector should be placed on the opposite side of the subject’s face to create the key light. It should be angled at 45 degrees and about four feet from the model.
  7. Adust your flash. Try a few samples of your subject to adjust the flash power. Your asymmetrical lighting setup should not be affected by the flash intensity. Also, don’t light too much on the shadowed sides of your subject’s faces. If this happens, you can turn the flash off.