Rembrandt lighting uses a single light source to create dark, moody portraits. Photographers love the Rembrandt style because it evokes more emotion than flatter lighting patterns. It’s also relatively simple to implement, especially when you have some control over your light source.
But capturing perfect Rembrandt lighting does take some inside knowledge, so in this article, I’ll give you a step-by-step breakdown of my approach. I’ll also cover:
When Rembrandt lighting is a good option for portrait photographyHow to get started with Rembrandt lightingRembrandt lighting versus other lighting patterns and stylesAdvanced tips and techniques for Rembrandt lighting
Let’s dive right in.
What is Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting uses a single light source to illuminate a portrait subject; its most important characteristic is the shadowy face and the triangle of light that appears on one cheek.
Note that Rembrandt lighting is all about light position. If the light is positioned incorrectly, the triangle of light won’t appear, and you won’t have Rembrandt lighting. Ideally, the small patch of light will be about the same width as the subject’s eye and spread partway down the cheek. (The other side of the subject’s face should be fully illuminated.)
You can use this lighting pattern with both ambient light and added light. But it’s essential that you control the position of your subject in relation to the light. Therefore, shooting with movable lighting, whether strobe or continuous, is easier than using ambient light.
When should you use Rembrandt lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is a great way to add some drama to a portrait photograph. With a single light source – positioned off to the side of the subject – you can create dark, moody shadows. The pattern can evoke plenty of different emotions when used skillfully.
Shadows create tension in relation to highlights. When a person’s face is partially obscured in shadow, the viewer experiences a sense of mystery and a moody atmosphere. The balance between light and dark also helps draw the viewer’s eye around the image. They’re more likely to linger (compared to a more evenly lit portrait).
This classic technique was named after the famous 17th-century Dutch artist, Rembrandt, who used the lighting approach in many of his portrait paintings. And it remains popular because it is so timeless. Other lighting styles rise and fall, but Rembrandt lighting never seems to go out of fashion.
It’s also very simple and practically anyone can do it, so it’s a great choice for beginners looking to get into studio portrait photography. While you can shoot Rembrandt portraits with multiple light sources, you only need one to start. Therefore, you can set your exposure based on a single light source, then you can forget about it while you’re taking your photos.
Because almost half of the subject’s face is hidden in shadow when you use Rembrandt lighting, it can have a slimming effect; this can be good for certain types of fashion portraits, as well. The darker side of the face may even blend into the background (depending on the contrast levels and how you set your exposure).
Getting started with Rembrandt lighting: step by step
The easiest way to create Rembrandt lighting is with artificial lighting such as an LED panel or a studio strobe. Let me explain how to set this up:
Step 1: Choose a suitable location
Set up in a location with limited ambient light. You want to be able to see, of course, but the lower the light levels, the less you’ll be stuck with extra light messing up your Rembrandt effect.
Step 2: Carefully position your subject
Make sure your subject is standing or sitting a decent distance from the background. The closer the subject gets, the more challenging it becomes to keep the background completely black (because light will spill from the main source).
A black background isn’t a Rembrandt-light requirement, but it generally looks good, especially if you’re after an ultra-moody effect.
Step 3: Carefully position your light
Place your light so it’s off to one side and slightly above your subject. If you’re using a continuous light, turn it on, check the light and shadow on your subject’s face, then move the light around until you see a triangle of light on the cheek that’s facing away from the source. Note that you can make the triangle larger or smaller by moving the light to the left or the right; feel free to experiment until you get a result you like.
If you’re using a fixed light source such as a window, you can always ask your subject to move, but this is less ideal and can be more frustrating.
Really, I recommend you do this with a continuous light, as it’s much easier to evaluate the shadows in real-time. But if you’re using strobes, check to see if they include modeling lights; these “preview” lights let you check the shadow effect as you go along.
Finally, if you’re working with a speedlight, you’ll need to position the light, take a test photo, review the image for the triangle of light, reposition the speedlight accordingly, and so on. This can be done, but it’ll take longer and require a lot more messing around (during which time your subject may become uncomfortable or bored).
Rembrandt lighting vs other lighting styles
Rembrandt lighting is a good way to produce a moody look, and because it only needs one light, it’s quick to set up. It’s therefore a great style to try when you’re working with someone who is more uncomfortable in front of the camera.
But if you need a less contrasty or less emotional portrait, you should position your lights differently. If you’re only working with one light, you can bring it out a bit more in front of your subject, which will lessen the shadows and soften the mood. (This is often called loop lighting.) And if you bring the light out so it’s directly in front of your camera – but still above the subject’s head – you can create a pattern known as butterfly lighting.
You might also consider bringing in a second light. Fill light on the shadowy side of your subject will lessen the drama (while potentially preserving the Rembrandt effect). But you can also use the second light to illuminate the background or to add fill light under your subject’s chin (when combined with the butterfly lighting pattern I mentioned above, this will create a clamshell lighting effect).
Advanced tips and techniques for Rembrandt lighting in photography
It’s essential that you remain in control of your lighting, but you shouldn’t become so obsessed with managing light and shadow that you neglect your subject. Problems can arise when you’re fussing over the strobe position as your subject waits for you. In fact, this can completely ruin a portrait, no matter how incredible your lighting turns out.
Be prepared. Carefully set up your light and do an exposure reading. Set your camera’s exposure using Manual mode so you know exactly what’s going to happen at all times. I prefer to do this part even before my subject arrives and is seated for the portrait. That way, once they do arrive, I can give them my full attention.
If you’re working with ambient light, you’ll need to communicate more carefully with your subject. Explain the look you’re after. It’ll help them better understand why you then give such detailed instructions on how to move and sit.
Remember, for the most effective Rembrandt lighting, it’s best to keep your subject away from the background. The closer your subject is to the background or to other elements in your portrait composition, the more difficult it is to manage the light. When light spills onto backdrops or other objects, you’ll start to lose control over the scene.
Post-processing plays an important role in Rembrandt lighting, too. Modern digital cameras can capture a broad range of tones, so you must edit your portraits if you want a moody effect. This often involves darkening the shadow areas and boosting the contrast levels, though I encourage you to test out different edits and see what you come up with.
Rembrandt lighting: final words
Rembrandt lighting is a great technique that’ll help you create wonderful portraits. That little triangle on the cheek plus dark shadow areas certainly make for compelling photos!
As with any photographic technique, Rembrandt lighting can be mastered with practice. So take your time. If you can, use a continuous light to preview the effect as you work.
Most importantly, don’t fixate on getting the Rembrandt lighting technique perfect if it means other aspects of your portraits suffer. For instance, you don’t need to catch that clear triangle of light if your subject laughs and turns their head slightly. Aim to capture the moment and the mood, instead.
Will you use Rembrandt lighting in your portraits? When do you plan to try it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!