Portrait Photography Lighting Styles – Rembrandt Lighting

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Author: Rob PC Gray

Learning from the old masters

The Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn used painting techniques suggesting ambient light rendering shadows and highlights which created the illusion of a three dimensional portrait. Filmmakers and photographers have picked up on this technique and applied it to portraiture and scene lighting.

A host of work to analyze

Examples of this can clearly be seen in Rembrandt van Rijn's work, which include his many self portraits, A Polish Nobleman, Atemisia, Portrait Of An Old Man In Red and a host of others.

An Old Man in Red by Rembrandt van Rijn
An Old Man in Red by Rembrandt van Rijn

Nothing without light

Once the new digital photographer has eventually got to grips with the plethora of equipment that add to the photographic experience, he or she can delve into the exiting world of portraiture and lighting. Photography does not exist without lighting. Rembrandt lighting has become infused as a lighting technique alongside broad portrait lighting, short portrait lighting, split portrait lighting and butterfly portrait lighting.

Similar Technique

Rembrandt lighting is similar to short or broad lighting where the key light is placed on the narrow or broad side of the face leaving one section of the face in shadow. Imagine your subject facing directly towards the camera with the key light placed right of the camera, more to the side of the subject and above the head. The subject turns towards the light creating a shadow on the other side of the face.

Female portrait using borad lighting
portraits_201304_5.jpg by Peter Schijven on flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

The shadow can be placed on the opposite side by the subject turning away from the key light. This simple technique is enough to create some interest in the portrait and is generally a good starting point.

The essential difference

The difference between these lighting techniques and Rembrandt lighting is in the nose shadow. The key light must be placed in a critical position in relation to the subject and the camera so that the nose shadow connects with the large shadow on the same side of the face. This must result in a triangle of light under the eye, Rembrandt's signature in his portraits. The contrast created can be reduced using a fill light with the desired intensity placed on the shadow side of the face or on the camera axis towards the subject.

Male portrait taken using soft Rembrandt lighting
Benjamin Thompson by Benjamin Thompson on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Dramatic results

This lighting style is linked to chiaroscuro lighting where shadow and light are used to sculpture the subject. The effect is dramatic and lends itself to rugged portraits mainly suited to men. Rembrandt implied natural ambient lighting which seemed to favor harsh sunlight or fire sourced light as used in The Night Watch painting.

Female portrait with dramatic Rembrandt lighting
Black dress 04 by Andrew Yun on flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

If extended to broader subjects showing location, the low key technique of Rembrandt and chiaroscuro produce dramatic results that have also been exploited by the film industry. This can be seen in old films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, in modern photography and movies softer lighting sources are used while still maintaining the Rembrandt triangle under the eye.

Wes Finch, low key rembrandt lighting
Wes Finch by Rob on flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)


There is no doubt that Rembrandt's legacy exists in the creative lighting techniques developed and employed by the modern photographer and filmmaker to create depth in these essentially flat mediums.

About the Author

Rob Gray has produced many broadcast programs and teaches digital photography to beginners.
Rob offers easy to understand courses and mini ebooks on photography and Photoshop.
Vist the Facet Visual and Sound web site where you can register for free photographic hints and purchase the mini ebooks on photoshop and digital photography.

Written by Guest

April 7th, 2011 at 7:57 pm

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