What Is Rembrandt Lighting? All Portrait Photographers Need to Know

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Rembrandt lighting refers to a very specific lighting style. More or less, if you think of a little triangle of light, think of Rembrandt. It comes from a painterly look, and in photography it can flatter your subject. Tons of tutorials out there tell you all about the history of it. So in this one, we’re diving into our archives to give you a practical idea of how to use Rembrandt lighting. We’re also going to give you some tips from experience. 

Rembrandt Lighting in a Nutshell

Here’s an important quote from an article we did a while ago:

Rembrandt lighting is a technique that draws upon the principle of chiaroscuro: the use of contrasts in lighting to provide a dimensional sense to your images. It’s one of the most popular portrait lighting techniques because it works well for many different types of faces.

A subject lit using Rembrandt lighting is characterized by the following:

  • one side of the subject’s face is perfectly illuminated
  • most of the opposite side of the subject’s face will be in the shadows aside from an upside-down triangle of light that illuminates a portion of the subject’s cheek

When done properly, Rembrandt lighting can resemble window light and lends a natural look to your portraits. This makes sense, as that was the only source of light that was consistently available during Rembrandt’s time with the exception of candlelight.

More or less, Rembrandt lighting is all about getting that beautiful triangle of light to show on the opposite side of the face from the main light source.

The Angle: And Another Cheap Sheet

A big part of Rembrandt Lighting has to do with the angle of the lighting. Here’s a quote from another article we did a while back.

…we’re not talking about a right angle triangle here; we’re talking about hitting the correct angles. For the best effect, make the zoom head of your flash the widest it can be. If you’re using a softbox, you’ll want the light modifier to be to the side of the subject and just a bit in front of them a tad. This will help with aiming the light at the right spot.

If you’re facing your subject, and the left/right of your subject is 90 degrees, try to angle the light at a 75 degree area. Don’t make it fully go off onto the side unless the light modifier is huge. I think this is also a very big part of it; a six foot umbrella might project a very large lighting area, so you’ll need to move it further away.

But there’s more!

How to Create Rembrandt Lighting

Here’s another tip: have your subject turn their face a bit away from the light.

To start with, you’ll need the correct light source. If you’re shooting a portrait, this can easily be done with something as small as a hot shoe flash. In general, what you’re going to do is bounce the flash off of a wall or surface that is camera left or right. With the subject in front of you, you’ll have to consider the position of the light.

If the light is to the side of the camera and behind you, then you can have the subject turn their face or body slightly away from the light source. This is because of the angle that the light is hitting from.

We hope these tips are helpful to you!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.