We all know that to create a shadow you simply put something in front of a light. That’s all you’re doing with Rembrandt lighting in portrait photography. You’re putting a nose in front of the light to create a shadow. Then moving the light to adjust the shadow, or moving your subject if you use natural light.
But let’s back up a bit before we get into the details of Rembrandt lighting and how to use it in portrait photography.
What is Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is one of the best known lighting patterns used in portrait photography, regardless of whether you use natural light or flash.
You need just one light to create a basic Rembrandt lighting setup, so the good news is that you can practice on yourself in front of a mirror using a desk lamp.
Rembrandt light is a moody, dramatic style of lighting as it can be quite shadowy. Because of this it used to be considered a masculine style of lighting. Rembrandt lighting is still often used to light men, but can just as easily be used to light women, especially with modern photographers.
The other types of portrait lighting patterns are:
- Flat lighting
- Butterfly lighting
- Split lighting
- Loop lighting
- Rim lighting
Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know
Depending on which side of the subject you photograph from (the shadow side or the lit side) Rembrandt lighting can be used with:
- Broad lighting (lit side of the face is to camera, so the subject’s face appears wider)
- Short lighting (shadow side of the face is to camera, so the subject’s face appears narrower)
What does Rembrandt lighting look like?
When looking at your subject’s face you can see that a Rembrandt lighting setup has been used, because:
- A triangle of light appears below the eye
- On the shadow side of the face
- With the point of the triangle at the bottom (so an upside down triangle)
I’ll explain exactly how to do this in a minute. It’s actually a lot simpler than it sounds.
Here I used a Rembrandt lighting pattern with direct sunlight in the late afternoon. You can see it in the telltale upside down triangle of light on her right cheek (camera left).
Why is it called Rembrandt lighting?
This style of portrait lighting originated long before photography was a thing.
In the Renaissance period, this lighting pattern was very popular with painters. However, it was used extensively by Rembrandt, which is why this lighting style is named after him.
He lit his subjects with indirect natural light from a small, high window. The angle of the window meant that light shone down on his subjects from a 45 degree angle and he turned them so that half their face was in shadow, except for a small patch of light on the shadow side.
Why use Rembrandt lighting?
As I mentioned, because Rembrandt lighting involves shadows, it’s a great lighting pattern to use in portrait photography to add drama to a photo. It features a lot in low key portrait photography, because of the prevalence of shadows.
There are three main reasons to use a Rembrandt lighting style:
- Aside from drama, the shadows of Rembrandt lighting are also good for slimming down a face. So it’s not used as often on thin faces as they could look quite gaunt. On rounder faces, it adds depth and definition.
- Because our eyes are drawn to the lighter parts of an image, the triangle of light which is the key to Rembrandt lighting, helps draw the viewer’s eye to the subject’s eye.
- Rembrandt lighting is a classic way of lighting portraits and so will never appear dated. Portraits from decades ago lit with Rembrandt lighting are as stylish now as they were then, and will still look timeless decades from now.
So, let’s look at how to create this interesting, moody portrait lighting pattern.
This was a three light set up with studio lighting. The key light (aka main light) is to camera right in a Rembrandt lighting position, causing the triangle of light beneath the eye to camera left. A rim light to camera left and behind the model creates highlights on her arm, shoulder and hair and a fill light behind me to lift the shadows.
Is Rembrandt lighting for natural light and flash photography?
Yes, absolutely! Most of the photos in this tutorial are taken with natural light.
The only difference between natural light and flash is that with flash photography you get to move the light around to change lighting patterns.
If you’re using natural light outdoors you just need to pay attention to the angle and direction of the sun and then figure out which time of day is suitable for the lighting pattern you want to create.
For a Rembrandt lighting pattern indoors with natural light, just follow in the steps of the master painter. After all, he lit his subjects with indirect natural light coming through a window in his studio… and we all know how highly regarded his paintings are!
You can of course use direct natural light too, but if you want take advantage of the soft light of indoor photography, don’t position your subject in sunlight.
Can you see thee different lighting patterns in these two photos? The single light source is a large window to camera right with soft, indirect light flowing in. The only change between the two photos was the subject’s head position.
Above, the subject is looking out the window and away from camera, so the side of her face to camera is in shadow. The light is short lighting with a loop lighting pattern.
Below, she turned her head, so the window light is streaming across her face and her nose is casting a shadow on her cheek, creating the upside down triangle of light on her cheek. So this is Rembrandt lighting.
Further reading: Top tips on using natural light indoors for great photos
3 steps to create a Rembrandt lighting setup
Every face is different and will cast different shadows, so you have to bear in mind that these tips are a starting point for the Rembrandt lighting setup. You’ll have to make minor adjustments to the angle and height of the light for each person you photograph.
Because the iconic triangle of light key to the Rembrandt lighting pattern is created when your subject’s nose blocks some of the the light reaching the shadow side of their face, it stands to reason that the shape of your subject’s nose has a big impact on your Rembrandt lighting set up.
A big nose will cast a bigger shadow than a small nose and a flatter nose will cast less of a shadow than a nose with a high bridge.
1. Where to place the light
The best way to remember the starting point for Rembrandt lighting is to think of the hour markers on a clock. If your subject is in the middle of the clock facing you:
- The background is at 12 o’clock
- You are at 6 o’clock
- Your light needs to be at about 4 o’clock, or 8 o’clock
In other words, between 45 degrees and 60 degrees to your subject. You’ll need to adjust the exact placement of the light according to your subject’s face.
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Further reading: Direction of light – how to use side light
2. Height of the light
Now, to get the light over your subject’s nose to create that triangle of light, you have to raise your light.
My rule of thumb is to start with the light a ruler length above my subject’s head. It’s a foot in imperial measurement, or 30cm, but I always need to relate measurements to something that I’m familiar with, so I think in rulers.
It’s not just the nose that dictates your light position.
If your subject has deep set eyes, the light will need to be a little lower than for someone whose eyes aren’t deep set. Otherwise, there won’t be any catchlights in your subject’s eyes and a portrait without catchlights can be a bit lifeless.
I used two lights in this studio portrait lighting set up. The main light was to camera right to create the Rembrandt lighting style, with a fill light behind me. Because her head is turned away from camera and so the light is across the side of the face closest to camera, this is short lighting.
3. Angle of the light
Next you need to angle the light down slightly at 45 degrees. After that just make small adjustments to position the light to suit your subject’s face.
The Rembrandt triangle of light
When it comes to shaping the triangle of light:
- Make sure that the triangle is not wider than the eye above it
- The triangle can’t be longer than the nose
- The triangle must be a complete triangle for it to be Rembrandt lighting. If the nose shadow is not connected to the cheek shadow it’s loop lighting, which has a different feeling
Do you see now how your subject’s face and nose shape affect the position of your lighting?
Because Rembrandt lighting is moody, you can easily add to the contrast and mood of the image with a dark background.
Further reading: How to create a black background in photography with light
Shot with natural light one on a very overcast day with a low winter sun.
How to adjust the shadows in a Rembrandt lighting setup
The same principles apply to both natural light and flash photography when it comes to controlling the shadows in your photo. If you want to lift the shadows on your subject, you need to add fill light in the form of either:
- Another light (flash photography)
- Or a reflector (natural light and flash photography)
Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
For strong shadows with hard edges, use:
- A hard light, such as direct sunlight
- Or a flash without any modifiers, like a softbox or umbrella
To soften the edges of the shadows for a smooth transition from light to dark, use:
- Indirect natural light by photographing in open shade or use a diffuser to block the light
- If using flash, fit the largest softbox or umbrella you have to your light and bring it as close to your subject as possible
Further reading: Why photographers need to know about light quality
Summary of how to set up Rembrandt lighting
There are four steps to remember when setting up Rembrandt lighting:
- Position the light to the side of the subject
- Raise the height of the light to a foot above your subject
- Angle the light down about 45 degrees on your subject
- Make the minor adjustments needed to suit your subject’s face, nose and eyes
And remember, just because you can’t move the sun, doesn’t mean you have no control over the portrait lighting pattern you use. Just plan to shoot when the sun is at the best angle for the lighting style you want and move your subject into position.
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