Take Dramatic Portraits Just Like A Renaissance Painter

A lot of lessons can be learned from the master painters of the past. One in particular is Rembrandt. He was a Dutch painter from the 17th century. In fact, his style of painting has become so iconic that it’s regularly used in photography lighting setups. It’s aptly named Rembrandt lighting. That’s what we’re going to be looking at in this article.

What Is Rembrandt Lighting?


There are two key elements that set Rembrandt lighting apart from other lighting setups. Take a look at this self-portrait of Rembrandt. It’s very typical of the Rembrandt lighting style. Although I’m pretty sure he didn’t refer to it as Rembrandt lighting.

What this does is it creates a triangular patch of light under the eye. So in this self-portrait we can see that the triangle of light is underneath Rembrandt’s left eye .
Rembrandt Self Portrait

One of the first things to notice is the angle of light falling on the face. We can tell this in a couple of ways. The position of the catch light in the eyes is our first clue. It’s important to note that there’s a catch light in both eyes.

A catch light is the reflection of light that is in a person’s eyes. It give’s sparkle to the eyes and brings them to life.

The other very important part is the shadow from the nose. It reaches across to the shadow that’s on the side of the face. It’s the most distinguishing quality of Rembrandt lighting.

What this does is it creates a triangular patch of light under the eye. So in this self-portrait we can see that the triangle of light is underneath Rembrandt’s left eye.

Rembrandt Lighting Triangular Highlight

Why Use Rembrandt Lighting?


Rembrandt lighting has a certain quality that isn’t matched by any other lighting setup. The emotion, intrigue, and drama that it evokes from viewers makes it such a powerful lighting technique.

Because of this it’s a lighting setup that every photographer should learn and add to their photographic repertoire. Even if it’s just to appreciate in other people’s portraits.

Using Rembrandt lighting needs to be done in the right situation. For example, it’s not something that’s going to convey the innocence of a child.

The knowledge you’ll gain from learning about the angle, control, and direction of light make it a valuable learning tool.

Steps To Create A Rembrandt Lighting Setup


Follow these simple steps to create your own Rembrandt lighting setup.

1. Create the signature triangular patch of light on the cheek.

Rembrandt Lighting Signature Lighting

Simple, clean & elegant

Do this by placing the light to the side of the person. The precise angle will vary depending on the person you’re photographing. Remember that the shadow from the nose needs to extend to the shadow on the cheek.

2. Make sure to include the catch light in both eyes.

Rembrandt Lighting Catch Light

This can be tricky if the person has narrower eyes. That’s something I learned when practicing this technique. Keep experimenting with the position of the light and the posing of the person. Don’t be afraid to change your own position as the photographer.

3. Control the shadows.

Rembrandt Lighting Controlling Shadows

Me trying to look serious

In order to control the shadows on the other side of the person’s face you need to bounce light back towards the person. A reflector is perfect for this job.

The aim is to soften the shadows. This will come down to personal preference as to the intensity of the shadows you want to create.

Again, it comes back to what sort of mood or feeling you want to convey in your portraits.

And voila! You’ve now created your very own Rembrandt lighting portrait.

Where To From Here


I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences with this and what sort of images you create. Feel free to drop a comment below so we can keep the conversation going.

If you want to see more of Rembrandt’s paintings I’d certainly encourage you to do so. You can find virtually his entire collection online. A particularly good resource is the Rembrandt Database.

The particular painting we’ve been studying is one of his many self-portraits. You can see it here. Check out the other paintings that are on the site too. It’ll give you a feel for how this lighting is used.

You’ll be able to see the mood in the paintings and get a good idea of the emotions that you can put into your own portraits.

If you're just getting into off camera lighting check out my in depth guide on putting together your very own lighting kit. In fact, you'll be able to use the gear from that kit to create the lighting effect we've covered in this tutorial.

Want to know how else you can use off camera lighting? Take a look at the following articles:

5 Simple Steps To Create Dazzling Portraits With Loop Lighting​​​

How to Use Clamshell Lighting to Create Beautiful Headshots With A Simple Single Light Setup​​​

Now it’s time to pick up your camera and continue taking better portraits!

To your off camera lighting success,

Keith Lai – Dad, husband, photographer & all-round nice guy 😉

Categories: How To.

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