We all know that to create a shadow – you simply put something in front of a light. That’s all you need to do to create Rembrandt lighting in portrait photography. You put a nose in front of the light to create a shadow. Then move the light to adjust the shadow for the right look, or move your subject if you use natural light.
But let’s back up a bit before we get into the details of how to use Rembrandt lighting in portrait photography.
What is Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is defined by a triangle of light on the shadow side of the face and is one of the best known lighting patterns for portrait photography. It’s a moody, dramatic style of side lighting portraits with a lot of shadow.
Because of this Rembrandt lighting used to be considered a masculine style of lighting. While it’s still often used to light men, these days it’s also used for lighting women.
You can tell that I used Rembrandt lighting for this natural light portrait by the distinctive triangle of light on the left side of her face (camera right)
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. Plus, like all lighting styles, you can use natural light or flash.
Other lighting styles
Lighting creates mood in photos and photographers use different lighting for different messages. So Rembrandt lighting is just one of doing.
Other portrait lighting patterns include:
- Flat lighting – no shadows on the subject’s face
- Butterfly lighting – most seen on magazine covers
- Split lighting – half the face is lit
- Loop lighting – most used portrait lighting style, similar to Rembrandt lighting, but with less shadow
- Rim lighting – identified by a halo of light around the subject
Advanced Rembrandt lighting technique
Lighting is used in portrait photography not just to light a subject, but to flatter their features. So once you’ve decided on the lighting pattern you want to use, you have a second decision to make and that’s whether you need to slim or widen their face.
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
However, lighting isn’t always about a subject’s facial features. Sometimes lighting choice is based solely on mood and whether you want a lot of shadow for dramatic photos, or more light for a more upbeat feeling.
You can see comparisons of broad vs short light here.
What does Rembrandt lighting look like?
In portrait photography you can see when a Rembrandt lighting setup has been used by looking at the subject’s face. Rembrandt lighting style is defined by:
- 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?
The Rembrandt 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. He positioned them so that half their face was in shadow, except for a small patch of light on the shadow side.
Why use Rembrandt lighting?
Because Rembrandt lighting creates shadows, it’s a great lighting pattern for portrait photography to add drama to a photo. It features a lot in low key portrait photography, because of the prevalence of shadows.
The three main reasons to use a Rembrandt lighting style:
- The shadows of Rembrandt lighting slims down a face and add depth and definition to rounder faces. It can make thin faces appear gaunt, unless photographed with a broad light.
- The triangle of light, key to Rembrandt lighting, draws attention to the subject’s eye, because our eyes go to the lighter parts of an image.
- Rembrandt lighting won’t appear dated as it’s a classic way of lighting portraits. 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.
I created a three light set up in. my studio with strobe lighting for this portrait. 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. Behind me I added a fill light to lighten the shadows.
Is Rembrandt lighting for natural light and flash photography?
Yes, absolutely! I used natural light for most of the photos in this tutorial.
The only difference between natural light and flash is that with flash photography you can 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.
To use natural light indoors in a Rembrandt lighting pattern, just follow in the steps of the master painter and use window light for portraits. 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The shape of your subject’s nose has a big impact on your Rembrandt lighting set up.
- A big nose casts a bigger shadow than a small nose
- and a flatter nose casts less of a shadow than a nose with a high bridge
The three steps to a Rembrandt lighting set up are:
- Light position
- Height of light
- Angle of the light
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1. Where to place the light
The lighting direction for Rembrandt lighting from the side of the subject. The best way to remember light placement for Rembrandt lighting is to think of the hour markers on a clock.
If your subject’s 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 and nose shape.
2. Height of the light
To get the light over your subject’s nose to create the Rembrandt triangle of light, you have to raise your light.
My rule of thumb is to start with the light a ruler length higher than 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 in Rembrandt lighting.
If your subject has deep set eyes, the light needs 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 appears 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 add to the contrast and mood of the image by creating a dark background with lighting.
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
How to lighten shadows
If you want to lift the shadows on your subject, you need to add fill light:
- Add another light (flash photography)
- Use a reflector to bounce light back onto the subject (natural light and flash photography)
How to create hard or soft shadows
For strong shadows with hard edges use:
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
Summary of how to set up Rembrandt lighting
The four steps to remember when setting up Rembrandt lighting include:
- 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 photograph when the sun is at the best angle for the lighting style you want and move your subject into position.
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