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The Mother of all Lighting Setups – the Rembrandt Light



Let’s take a quick excursion into the past right at the beginning and see why the Rembrandt Light is called Rembrandt Light. :-)

The artist and painter Rembrandt (whose full name actually was “Rembrandt van Rijn”) used a certain lighting style (portrait lighting) for many of his famous paintings and graphics.


Rembrandt Self-Portrait
Image source: Wikipedia

For many years, Rembrandt intensively studied the effects of light and shadow. While doing so, he perfected the illumination of his portraits further and further which ultimately led to the development of the “Rembrandt Light”, named after its creator, which he established into a stylistic device due to his art of painting.


As you can see in this picture, the shadow of the nose creates a light triangle on the cheek. The specific feature which also accounts for the typical lighting character is that the light triangle is closed and that the part of the face which is averted from the light is mostly in the dark. Lots of his paintings therefore also have a rather gloomy characteristic.

As soon as the triangle does not have the closed form anymore, we don’t refer to it as typical Rembrandt Lighting any longer.

Lighting Setup and Application:

Basically, this is a very simple but yet dramatic and expressive lighting set which can be copied quickly. However, with this kind of setup, the model does not have much of a range of motion because greater movements will easily destroy the closed light triangle.

Even up to this day, this exact lighting is very frequently applied in portrait photography and should therefore also be part of the mandatory program of any photography training. This classic can of course be complemented by further light modifiers (e.g. a rim light), which leads to countless modification and application possibilities. Adjusted perspectives and image sections also serve for the creation of dynamic and modern looks.


Classic Rembrandt light with one flashlight

In general, this typical lighting effect can be achieved with almost any light modifier. Depending on what you would like to express with your shot, you either choose a soft or rather harder light modifier.


One may say that the rather harder light modifiers usually find usage for expressive male portraits (character portraits) whereas the softer light modifiers rather seem suitable for portraits of female models; in such cases, however, fill-in, background and hair light are welcome to complement the setup. Due to its hardness, the straight classic style is rather suitable for men.


Lightsetup: Men’s portrait Rembrandt light

Especially if you like working with minimal flash lights, this classic couldn’t be any more suitable. With one light source and maybe another fill-in, you can achieve brilliant results.


Light setup Woman Portrait in Rembrandt style with color gels


The Rembrandt Light with its typical light triangle seems especially pleasant and harmonic to us humans which is why it still enjoys great popularity to this very day.


Making-of Rembrandt light with four flashes

The classic setup of the Rembrandt Light almost always qualifies as basis for portrait photography. However, for truly interesting and strong shots, the part of the face which is averted from the light and shows the light triangle should be in the photo’s focus. Rembrandt did often times portrait the side facing the light which is not necessarily beneficial these days because it lets the face appear rather extensive (round) and the focus may be directed to a possibly illuminated ear. Back in the days, this was less of a problem because hats, voluminous accessories or flowing hair were part of the style.


Naturally, the light triangle does not necessarily have to stay closed in your own photography; it is only the typical feature of the classic Rembrandt Light. Even Rembrandt’s paintings themselves are influenced by quite a few variations.


Perhaps you now feel encouraged to experiment yourself and enhance these lighting setups with some of your own ideas.

Have fun testing and experimenting,

Johannes Dauner

PS: We have made 10 examples available in a file to be used in set.a.light 3D.

You can download the file here: [Download not found]

A trial version of the software can be found here: https://www.elixxier.com/en/downloads/

You are welcome to share this as well as all other posts with your friends and fellow photography enthusiasts!

This post is also available in: German

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