What is Rembrandt Lighting, and How can I Replicate it?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes 

Proper lighting is an art form that can transform a simple image into a captivating masterpiece. One such photography lighting technique that has stood the test of time is Rembrandt Lighting. Named after the renowned Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, this photography lighting technique is noted for its ability to add depth and emotion to portrait photography.

What is Rembrandt Lighting and How To Master It in Photography?

Rembrandt, 1660 Self Portrait.

Characterised by a distinct triangular patch of light that falls on one side of the subject's face under the eye while the opposite side is cloaked in shadow, Rembrandt Lighting creates a dramatic effect that draws attention to your model's features and emotions. The high contrast effect makes faces seem sharper and harsher, especially highlighting features such as wrinkles and eye shapes, compared to the softer, wider spreads of lighting preferred by photographers, which are designed to flatter subjects' skin.

What is Rembrandt Lighting and How To Master It in Photography By EssentialPhoto

The shape of the shadows on Chloe's face in this image by Gavin Hoey is a great example of the triangle of harsh shadows found in the Rembrandt Lighting technique.

How To Get Perfect Rembrandt Lighting Effect

1. Equipment:

Suitable lighting equipment for this effect typically includes one or two light sources. One light will work just fine, but if you're in a darker environment and need to lift shadows on the opposite side of the light, a reflector photography is highly recommended.

This handy single CITI600 kit comes with a stand, softbox, and reflector, which is perfect for replicating this effect. Or, if you're after a lower-powered strobe, this similar CITI300 Kit is a great alternative. 

CITI600PRO 600Ws Quick Assembly Battery Powered Portable Lighting Kit

Softboxes are also recommended to pair with your lighting, to offer you more control. Our new Flatpak Range of softboxes is perfect for taking on location or for easy setup in your studio, and they come with grids and diffusion panels included. 

A dark, textured background will also go a long way if you are aiming to replicate the dark, mysterious style of Rembrandt's paintings, and this effect can be found in the Collapsible Printed Background range, as well as Textured HandPainted Canvas Backgrounds if you're going for that authentic look.

Read similar: Portrait Lighting StylesHow to Care for Handpainted Backgrounds

2. Positioning:

Position the subject at a slight angle to the light source, around 45 degrees. The light should be above the subject's eye level, casting a triangular shadow on the opposite side of the face. Experiment with different angles to find the most flattering positioning for your subject.

3. Direction:

Ensure that the light is not directly facing the subject, as this would result in flat lighting. A gentle sidelight creates the contrast between light and shadow that characterises Rembrandt Lighting.

Rembrandt Setup example from Gavin Hoey at our stand at The Photography Show.

See this Rembrandt Setup example from Gavin Hoey at our stand at The Photography Show.

CITI300 Pro is used with a FlatPak70cm Softbox at an angle to Chloe's face.

Camera Settings:

  • Choose a wide aperture (e.g., f/2.8 to f/5.6) to achieve a shallow depth of field. This will help isolate the subject from the background, making them the focal point of the image.

  • Set the shutter speed and ISO to achieve the desired level of exposure while maintaining a balanced interplay of light and shadow. Remember that a higher ISO may introduce noise, so aim for a good balance.

Understanding Rembrandt Lighting can add an element of timeless elegance to your portrait photography. By simply playing with the contrast of light and shadow and carefully positioning your subject and light sources, you can create captivating portraits that evoke emotion and mystery.

For some equipment recommendations tailored to your budget and space, contact our team at info@essentialphoto.co.uk and our experts will be happy to suggest some lighting equipment and modifiers to suit you and your photography!