Guide to Rembrandt Lighting
This guide will show you how to set up and use Rembrandt lighting. We’ll explain everything from what the ‘triangle of light’ is to where to position your camera and lights to achieve it.
Below you’ll find example images and diagrams we’ve prepared. By the end of the guide, you’ll see that Rembrandt lighting is surprisingly easy to get to grips with.
Soon you’ll be taking striking high contrast portraits that really catch the eye.
What is Rembrandt Lighting?
Rembrandt lighting is a technique for portrait photography named after Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the great painter. It refers to a way of lighting a face so that an upside-down light triangle appears under the eyes of the subject.
In Hollywood in the early 20th century, the legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille introduced spotlights to create more realistic effects of light and shadows into the ‘plain’ studio lighting setup that was generally in use.
Rembrandt lighting is one effect that was created by this, and it became widely used in promotional photographs of film stars showing them in a dramatic and eye-catching way.
Why use Rembrandt Lighting?
By using Rembrandt lighting you instantly create shadows and contrast – and of course, the characteristic ‘triangle of light’ beneath the subject’s eye
Rembrandt lighting adds an element of drama and psychological depth to the character of your sitter.
It’s effective, not just because it gives an individual ‘look’ to your portrait photography, but also because it acts as a photographic device to draw the eye.
You can do this in so many ways in photography – leading lines, depth of field and negative space are all methods of drawing the viewer’s eye to the focal point/subject of the image.
In portraiture, the eyes of your subject are nearly always the main point of focus. The triangle of light, placed just below the eye on the shadow side of the face, will increase the emphasis and the viewer really will be ‘drawn in’ to your image.
So, use Rembrandt lighting to create not just dramatic portrait photography, but also portrait photography that grabs the viewer’s attention and draws their eye to your subject.
After all, this is the aim of portraiture – it’s all about your subject.
How to Create a Rembrandt Lighting Setup
Lighting styles are determined by the positioning of your light source. Rembrandt lighting is created by the single light source being at a 40 to 45-degree angle and higher than the subject.
Below you can learn how exactly to create a basic Rembrandt lighting setup, using our easy-to-follow steps.
1. Choose where to try Rembrandt lighting
Ideally, you need a dark room with a dark background when trying Rembrandt lighting setups. A photographic studio would, of course, be perfect for this using a dark photo background.
But we know not everyone has easy access to a photography studio! So, if that’s the case for you, we recommend finding some way of creating a dark background for the space you have available.
You could wait until nightfall when the lack of light will enable you to create effective Rembrandt lighting even if you’re working in a room decorated in light colours.
2. Get your equipment ready
So now you understand a little about the history of Rembrandt lighting and why it can be so effective, and you have your space ready. Let’s cover what camera gear, accessories and lighting equipment are needed before you start photographing.
Full frame, crop sensor, DSLR or mirrorless – whatever camera you use, you’ll need it ready to take some portraits!
If you’re shooting close-cropped headshots (see guide), a classic lens choice would be an 85mm or 105mm – or even a 70-200mm.
However, bear in mind that if you’re shooting at home, space may be tight! To make the most of an 85mm prime lens for portraiture, really you need to be able to have the space to step back.
So we recommend you consider a 35mm or 50mm if space is at a premium – or if you’re looking at including more of the subject than just the head and shoulders.
A 50mm works really nicely for portraits and will give a nice depth of field if you’re shooting at a shallow aperture. But a 35mm will give you a wider point of view and is great to fit more of the body in of your subject.
Anything wider than 35mm will start to distort your subject unless you can step right back.
- Primary light source
This is crucial – you need a key light source that can be positioned at about a 45-degree angle from your subject. A little in front of directly side-on. This can be a flash, studio lamp or video light.
However, don’t worry if you don’t have any of these. You can use a household lamp or even sunlight from a window, as we’ll discuss later.
- Reflector or secondary light source
This is optional – some people use reflectors or a fill light to even out the lighting. However, using a fill light is certainly not mandatory and you can take Rembrandt lighting portraits with just one light source.
This is not a piece of camera equipment but the absolute key item – someone to photograph! If you can’t find a helpful model, you can take self-portraits.
This is optional, but it’s a must for self-portraits and may be helpful when you’re starting out when lighting Rembrandt style!
- Flash or light modifier
You can use a flash or light with no modifier for a very high contrast look, but you may want to use one to diffuse your light. Again, this is optional.
3. Choose your settings
Your choice of camera settings depends on how you light your image and where you take it from.
The image above was taken at night, with a dark background, with one flash and also an additional light to offer a little fill.
If you’re shooting during the day and you’re unable to block out the daylight to create a high contrast look, you’ll need to use flash, a high shutter speed and a low ISO.
Using these settings together can completely ‘kill’ the ambient light and create a dark and atmospheric Rembrandt lighting portrait.
There are no rules as to what settings you use for Rembrandt lighting – experiment and adjust the settings as you work through the process of moving the lights and camera into position and perhaps alter your sitter’s pose.
You can use a shallower aperture to soften the look of your image as well – it will help smooth skin tones. A narrower aperture will give harsher edges and more contrast – see our guide to aperture here for more tips.
4. Choose where to position your key light
We are looking mainly at images taken using an artificial light source – either a flash or studio lamp.
This really is the important part of a Rembrandt lighting setup! Getting the position of your key light just right – so, follow these simple steps.
- Your key light must be set at about 45 degrees – a little in front of a direct side-on position – of your subject.
- Place your light higher than eye level, just above your subject’s head – use a light stand or clamp to do this. Then angle the light down towards your subject.
- Remember: you’re looking for that triangle of light effect. This should be seen under the subject’s eye. It will be on the opposite side to where the key light is.
If you can’t see the triangle, adjust your key light position and keep reviewing your images as you go along.
5. Choose where to position your camera
Moving your camera position can influence the mood and feel of your image and change whether you’re using broad light or short light.
Broad lighting is defined as when the shadowed side is furthest from the camera. Short lighting is where the shadowed side is closest to the lens.
Try different angles and distances from your subject, depending on your space of course. Just remember – in Rembrandt lighting, you don’t want to lose that light triangle on the subject’s face.
You can plan with this online tool, Set A Light – it’s a great place to experiment with your camera and lighting setup. We highly recommend giving it a try.
6. Getting the triangle just right
Getting the triangle – also called the ‘Rembrandt patch’ – in exactly the right place on your subject’s face is crucial.
For an authentic Rembrandt lighting image, the triangle shouldn’t be wider than the eye it’s under. And it shouldn’t be longer than the nose.
However, in the end, this is your image – you can bend the ‘rules’ to suit your sensibilities!
It’s the presence of the triangle of light that will differentiate your image from more standard ‘short lighting’.
7. Try window light rather than flash or studio lighting
The beauty of Rembrandt lighting for portraiture is that you don’t need fancy lights or flashes – you can use a window to light your subject, just like the image above.
The principles are the same – the light source (in this case a window) should be at 45 degrees from your subject and above the head. But there are lots of variables to consider still.
First of all, time of day and quality of light. Bright sunlight at midday will give a harsh and high contrast look. Softer light at sunset or light with cloud cover will offer diffusion.
Then, you still need to have the light above as well as to the side of the subject. So you may want to consider sitting on the floor with your subject if your window is low on the wall.
Lastly, consider the kind of window! A smaller window will be easier to work with – but even a large bay window can work. Just use your curtains to narrow the amount of light you let in and control the angle of light onto your subject.
8. Look to Rembrandt for inspiration!
You’ll naturally look at what other famous photographers do, but why not have a look at the genius himself?
Rembrandt loved playing with strong shadows across the face and used all sorts of lighting setups and poses to achieve a great variety of different results.
In some the eyes are almost hidden, in others he uses a more ordinary flat-on light, and in others, you can clearly see the triangle-shaped sliver of light beneath the subject’s eye.
So why not look at the original paintings by the great genius for inspiration! ‘Rembrandt lighting’ is most easily seen in Rembrandt’s painted self-portraits (see the image above).
Why not try some self-portraits of your own? By moving the lights you’re using, you can dramatically change the look and feel of the image.
The benefit you have is that you can use a timer delay to take your images – Rembrandt painted them using a mirror!
For even more inspiration, check out this great article on photos inspired by paintings.
The key with Rembrandt lighting, as with all photography, is to know the dramatic impact that light can have on your images.
As George Eastman, the founder of Kodak said: “Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you’ll know the key to photography.”
We hope this guide has shown that Rembrandt lighting is one technique worth trying – and one that doesn’t have to be complicated to master. It’s a technique that can be tried in different ways – using flash, studio lights, or just light from a window – and it can be a starting point to experimentation.
So now, pick up your cameras, set your light source to 45 degrees from your subject and start shooting Rembrandt lighting. Then, experiment with your lighting setup and have fun.
Who knows, after mastering Rembrandt lighting, perhaps you’ll find and develop your own signature lighting style.
If you have any questions about how to create a Rembrandt lighting setup, drop us a comment below and we’ll be glad to help out.