Rembrandt Lighting: What it is, How to do it and Why I love it

I’m so excited for today’s blog topic! Rembrandt lighting is one of my FAVORITE types of lighting. It’s a look that can be achieved both in studio as well as with natural sunlight. I was first introduced to Rembrandt lighting in an Art History class back in college. I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that this quality of light could be replicated in photographs until Justin & Mary pulled up a slide of their work at their Lighting Intensive class and showed us how to make it happen.

Now, there’s really no question that Rembrandt was an incredibly gifted & recognizable master painter. We wouldn’t still be talking about him & his work so many years later if he wasn’t! Take a moment to type in “Rembrandt portraits” into a Google image search.  As you scroll down through the paintings, you’ll start to see him using the same lighting technique that you see in the painting below (Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Woman in Black Cap, 1632).


In this painting, light is flooding in from the left side of the room (from the viewers perspective), stops at the bridge of the nose (creating a harsh line), and then falls over to the left side of the subjects face resulting in a small triangle of light that sits just beneath her left eye.  We’re able to identify the direction of the light and the fact that it is coming from a small light source (causing the harsh shadow). There is little no fill light on the left side of her face, which makes the transition from highlight to shadow less gradual (high contrast). Rembrandt lighting instantly makes the subject look like a classic and important individual.


OK! So, how do we make Rembrandt lighting happen in our photographs? I drew a nifty little diagram below for those of us that learn better visually (this girl, right here!). Draw a 45 degree angle between the light source (key light) to the subject, and then from the subject to you as the photographer. You might want to play around with a reflector (or even an actual fill light that is set further back) if you prefer lower contrast photos. If you’re a fan of the high contrast photos, forgo the reflector and let all of those dark shadows take over!


While I love a beautiful and evenly lit subject in my photographs as much as the next photographer, there is something to be said about this kind of lighting. It’s different, and not a lot of photographers (that I’ve seen, at least!) use it. I’m going to try it out again for a portrait or two at my next wedding, and I can’t wait!

Happy Thursday 🙂


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