Rembrandt lighting 101: An intro to the simplest technique for creating dramatic portraits


Considered by historians to be one of the greatest visual artists of all time, Rembrandt van Rijn’s innovative use of light in his paintings has inspired not only countless painters but also photographers.

Photo by Ethan Weil

In fact, the 17th-century Dutch painter’s style is so distinct that it led renowned filmmaker Cecil B. Demille to christen this look 'Rembrandt Lighting.' This lighting technique has proven to be so influential that until this day, it is still widely used in the worlds of fine art, cinema, and photography.

Photo by Liliia Beda

Elevate the quality of your portrait photography by employing this simple lighting technique. It may seem complex, but all you need is one light source and your camera. Scroll through the steps below to create your own photographic masterpiece.

01. Study Rembrandt’s paintings

Since you’re incorporating Rembrandt’s style into your photography, it's helpful to familiarize yourself with his body of work. He produced so many prints and paintings during the Dutch Golden Age, but he is still best known for his prolific collection of Baroque-style portraits and self-portraits. 

Self-portrait as Apostle Paul by Rembrandt
A Polish Nobleman by Rembrandt
A Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt

By observing the paintings above, you'll notice Rembrandt's fondness for his specific style of lighting. He was one of the greatest masters of chiaroscuro—an Italian term that translates to 'light-dark.' This technique plays with the contrast between light and shadow to create a dramatic sense of volume and dimension.

Head of an Old Man with a Cap by Rembrandt

Apart from chiaroscuro, Rembrandt was also a master of rendering skin tones. His portrayals of his subjects are so highly detailed that it almost feels like there is real light bouncing off their faces. Researching and studying his rich body of work can help you gain some surprising insights that you can apply to your portrait photography.

02. Shoot indoors

Although Rembrandt produced paintings depicting the outdoors, he mostly worked indoors, especially when creating portraits. If you look at some of his work carefully, his subjects appear lit from the same light source slightly above their heads. That’s because his portrait studio had tall windows that gave his paintings a distinct look.

Photo by Angel Gonzlez

To mimic Rembrandt's portraits in your photography, start by working indoors. It doesn’t have to be a studio. You can use any room, as long as it has windows to cast diffused lighting on to your subject.

Photo by Anthony Tran

If you don’t have any windows, you can also use artificial sources such as studio lights or an off-camera flash. While they are more complicated to set-up, they also allow you to direct light on to your subject better, as well as control the light's intensity more precisely. 

Photo by Simone Perrone

Apart from the lighting, you’ll also need a simple background to complete that classic portrait look. It could be anything from a blank wall to even a plain bed sheet. Textured textiles can also be used to make your backdrop look like it’s taken from a real painting.

03. Set up your light properly

Rembrandt lighting is a precise technique. You’ll need to set up your light as directed or it won’t be as visually effective. Thankfully, it’s also simple to execute. In fact, all you need to do is to place your light source at the right angle.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

If you're using a window, you’ll need to cover the bottom half with a black sheet or a blanket. That way, the light should only come from the top of the window and bounce on your subject from above. Alternatively, you can wait for the sun to be high enough just so the light hits your subject from the right angle.

Photo by Abi Lewis

The set-up for artificial lighting is technically the same as the window lighting. Create diffused lighting by attaching a softbox or studio umbrella to your studio bulb or flash unit. Additionally, you’ll need a remote trigger to set your lights off wirelessly, and a light stand where you can attach the bulb or flash unit. Once your rig is ready, position it slightly above your subject and place it at a 45-degree angle to them.

04. Pose your subject carefully

In strictly technical terms, Rembrandt lighting is defined by the small triangular light under the eye on the dark side of the subject’s face. You can see this effect clearly in Rembrandt’s self-portrait below:

Compare this to the triangle's appearance in photographic form:

Photo by Antenna

To create this specific effect, you not only need to place the lights at the correct angle, but you also need to pose your subject carefully until you see the triangle light up on their face. This is quite easy to do when you’re using natural lighting or a studio light. All you have to do is move the light or your subject until the triangle of light forms on their cheek.

Photo by Greta Arday

However, it gets a bit complicated if you’re using flash since it only produces quick bursts of light. Therefore, it might be necessary to take some test shots and move your light source until you see the triangle in your image.

Photo by Joe Gardner

Use Rembrandt's paintings as a reference to help you find the right poses. You’ll notice that most of his subjects have their heads angled slightly away from the key light. Consequently, one side of their face is completely illuminated, while the other is mostly obscured by shadow.

05. Select a wide aperture

To recreate the soft look of Rembrandt's paintings, you can adjust your aperture to its widest setting. Depending on your lens, it could either be f/1.8, f/1.4, or f/1.2. In typical situations, it’s not recommended to use your lens’ widest aperture because its extremely narrow depth of field could affect the sharpness of your image. However, since you want to recreate the appearance of 17th-century paintings, then it’s okay to lose some detail in your portrait.

Photo by Milan Popovich

Prime lenses are the best option since you can open their aperture wider than zoom lenses. You can use your camera's standard kit lens, but the effect won't be as dramatic because of the smaller maximum aperture. Consequently, its depth of field won't be shallow enough to create much of a blur in the background. You can easily increase the background blur, however, through post-processing.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

Since you’re dealing with an extremely narrow depth of field, it would be best if you use a tripod. It will help you control your focus better and keep the camera steady.

Photo by Easton Oliver

Always focus on the eyes when taking portraits. It doesn’t matter if the nose or the ears are slightly blurry. As long as the eyes are sharp, your viewers will respond to your portraits better. Since they’re the window to the soul, you'll want your subject's gaze to attract the viewer's attention.  

06. Play around with light and shade

A single light source is all you need to achieve Rembrandt lighting, but you can make it look more authentic with a few simple tweaks to your set-up.

Photo by Christian Holzinger

For instance, you can use a simple reflector as a fill light to illuminate the other side of your subject’s face. Doing so helps recover some of the detail lost in the shadows produced by the key light. Just be careful not to bounce back too much light, otherwise, the triangle on their cheek won't be as noticeable. If the reflection is too bright, move the reflector farther away until you achieve a balanced exposure.

Photo by Albert Dera

If you want to light up your background like Rembrandt’s portraits, you can use a rim light to illuminate your subject from behind. It doesn’t only add dimension to your model, but it also brightens the image overall. If you’re using a window, all you have to do is just let some of the light spill on to the backdrop, and you’re done.

Photo by Mark Skeet

Alternatively, you can also employ artificial lighting as your rim light. If you're already using a studio light as your key light, it's best to use the same type of light source to illuminate the background. Doing so ensures that the color temperature and the intensity of your image stay consistent.

You can also use a flash unit to light up the background. Just make sure to set the flash’s power to either medium or low, so it doesn’t overpower the key light.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

Considering how consistent and beautiful the lighting in Rembrandt’s paintings is, it’s astonishing to know that everything was achieved using only window lighting. It's an excellent showcase of what you can produce with natural light. The best takeaway from this history lesson is that it’s not important what kind of light source you use in your photography. Ultimately, what matters is how you use it create your own masterpiece.