What is Rembrandt lighting, and when do I use it?

  • I often hear studio photographers talk about 'Rembrandt Lighting' when they're setting up lights and doing studio portrait photography. What is Rembrandt Lighting, and when do I use it?

    Keep this stuff coming - VERY HELPFUL.

  • What is Rembrandt Lighting?

    Rembrandt Lighting is one of the 5 basic lighting setups used in studio portrait photography. There are two things that make up Rembrandt Lighting… A light on one half the face, and a triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face (called a chiaroscuro, but only lighting nerds need to remember that… most of us just call it ‘the triangle shadow’). If it’s ‘real’ Rembrandt lighting, the triangle shadow should be no wider than the eye, and no longer than the nose. The thing that distinguishes Rembrandt Lighting from simple short lighting is the triangle of light (also see 'In portrait photography, what is 'broad' lighting? What is 'short' lighting'). That’s the technical…

    In the real world, when it comes to portrait photography, Rembrandt Lighting is often confused with Short Lighting and is used as loose shorthand for ‘using a single light source to light roughly half the face, while leaving the other half of the face in some level of shadow.’ This is because it can often be quite 'fiddly' to get the triangle of light just right on a subject.

    Rembrandt lighting at its most basic level is constructed with a single light source placed approximately 45 degrees offset from the subject and a bit higher than eye level, lighting the side of the face that is farthest from the camera.

    One-light Rembrandt Lighting setup:

    Basic one-light Rembrandt Lighting setup diagram Basic one-light Rembrandt Lighting setup example

    Often times the single light source is augmented with a reflector or another light placed approximately 45 degrees offset to the shadowed side of the face and at ½ the power of the main light source (called the key light). This is used to lighten the shadows on the dark side of the face.

    One-light with reflector Rembrandt Lighting setup:

    Basic one-light Rembrandt Lighting setup with reflector diagram Basic one-light Rembrandt Lighting setup with reflector example

    When do I use Rembrandt Lighting?

    One of the reasons many photographers use Rembrandt Lighting is that it is relatively simple to set up, and requires only a single light source (though it’s often supplemented with a reflector in order to bring detail back into the shadows on the subject’s face). This lighting pattern works well for subjects will full or round faces (because it adds definition and slims the face), but is generally not a good choice for narrow faces. Often times ‘old school’ photographers will refer to Rembrandt Lighting as ‘masculine’ and some really old school portrait photographers will insist that a woman should never be lit with Rembrandt Lighting. This seems to be a relatively arbitrary distinction, however, and since Rembrandt himself painted women using basic Rembrandt Lighting, it’s safe to say that this ‘rule’ is a ‘guideline’ at best, and is something that many photographers regularly ignore.

    Does Rembrandt lighting have to be short? Could you keep the subject and light static, but photograph more from the lit side, thus making a broad Rembrandt lighting setup?

    Well, short and broad are their own distinct styles of lighting. Rembrandt is just Rembrandt whichever side you place in the shadow. That aside, it is generally more difficult and 'fiddly' to light the side closest to the camera for two reasons, the first is that the 45-degree thing doesn't work the same if you're lighting closest to the camera, the correct angle is more like 65 degrees off axis from the subject, which is harder to just eyeball. The second is that because the nose is covering a good chunk of the triangle of light, you have to position the camera juuuust right

    ...in order for the camera to be able to see it, and if you rotate the camera around the axis of your subject too far you end up catching the light (or a nasty lens flare) in your shot. The real power of the basic Rembrandt setup is that a monkey can set Rembrandt lighting up in its sleep with one arm tied behind its back. You can get some interesting results by reversing it, but you take away everything that's 'easy' about the setup when you do. That's not a reason not to do it (necessarily), just something to be aware of before you go in...

    @Jay Lance Photography - What software are you using to do the diagrams?

    Ok, time to go try this. We'll see if I'm at least as smart as a sleeping, one armed monkey.

    Let us know how it goes! The diagrams aren't actually a piece of software, they're a Photoshop template. More info on it (and a download link) can be found here: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/10/easy-diy-lighting-diagrams.html

    Hey, that came out really nice! Kinda 'evil looking'... But nice! You're right that a reflector or a light at half the power of your main light will bring some detail back into the shadows and make you look less intense... Unless you're into that sort of thing. :-) Hopefully the whole thing lived up to my 'sleeping monkey' claim...

    @Jay Lance Photography - Definitely easy, I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody to take 15 minutes and set it up if you're not familiar with this kind of stuff. Little things get learned every time you setup!

    Fantastic answer. It wasn't clear to me that the chiaroscuro is an artifact of the single light and the face shape - I was looking at the setup expecting to see a light that generated the triangle.

    The chiaroscuro is actually created by the nose and the upper ridge of the eye socket blocking the light source from fully falling on the shadowed side of the face...

    @Jay Lance Photography: What software did you use to create studio equipment positions images?

    Can you provide any reference where chiaroscuro is defined as the white triangle? AFAIK it is a generic term for communicating shape via light and dark areas.

    This is a wonderful tutoorial. Thanks for sharing.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM