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Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting

Here’s how to pull off this classic portrait photography lighting technique, and why it’s such an important tool for photographers to have in their repertoire.

Top image via Everett – Art.

Taking portraits is a lot like painting a picture. The end product can result in several different emotions, left up to interpretation by the audience. Photography in general is fascinating due to this power it holds. So, we as photographers can use this power to our advantage by challenging ourselves each shoot while trying to learn more about the art form. One of the most basic techniques for lighting your portraits calls back to the 1600s. Let’s dive into where this lighting technique comes from, and how we can use it now to push ourselves further with our craft.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting — Rembrandt
Image via Everett – Art.

Rembrandt was and is perhaps the most famous Dutch artist ever. His paintings (I’m sure you’ve seen one of them by now) are often filled with heavy contrast, shadowy subjects, and dark tones. These paintings brought a moody feeling to his work that conveyed all kinds of emotions.

How does this translate to photography? Specifically with his portraits, Rembrandt would paint so that the subject’s nose would be the defining line between light and shadow. By doing this, the furthest side of the subjects face would be dark. There would usually be a small smidgen of light in the shape of an upside triangle right below the subjects eye.

Lighting Setup For You

Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting — The Lighting Setup

The actual lighting setup for this type of shot is much simpler than you’d think. All you need is one light pointed at a 45 degree angle from the side of the subject’s face. If you can diffuse the light, it’ll help with the evenness of the shot. This should cast the proper shadows you need, and give you that Rembrandt shape and contrast. If you want, you can use a reflector or a second fill light on the opposite side. Just make sure it’s not so much so that you lose the absolute definition that makes up the shot.

Drawing Inspiration

Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting — Drawing Inspiration

So, you’ve done all this and taken your photos. What now?

Well, knowing this technique is important for a few reasons. First, if you’re ever on a shoot or helping out on set, you might be asked to get a Rembrandt shot, or to set up the lights for a Rembrandt look. Now you know what they’ll be referring to. This setup is perhaps the most important and classic setups for portraits. Second, its important to know where these techniques come from so you can push the medium forward into new territories. Don’t be afraid to look up new artists and try out new looks. The world is yours for the capturing.

Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?

For more on portrait photography and photography in general, check out some of these tutorials:

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