Rembrandt Lighting: What Is It, and How to Use It

Do you want to know how you can use Rembrandt lighting for gorgeous portrait photos?

That’s what this article is all about.

I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about Rembrandt lighting–so that, by the time you finish, you’ll be able to capture stunning, Rembrandt-lit portraits with a simple lighting setup.

Let’s dive right in, starting with…

What Is Rembrandt Lighting?

Rembrandt lighting is a simple lighting technique, one named after the famous 17th-century painter, Rembrandt.

It produces an effect where a portrait subject is primarily lit on one side of the face. The other side of the subject’s face is mostly in shadow, except–and this is key!–for an inverted triangle that appears under the eye.

Like this:

Do you see the inverted triangle? That’s the standout aspect of Rembrandt lighting. 

Note that the triangle should be completely closed. In other words, you shouldn’t have a path of light going from the triangle down to the mouth, like this:

The example above isn’t actually Rembrandt lighting; it’s another form of portrait lighting, called loop lighting, which I’ll discuss later on in this article. 

Here’s the bottom line:

Rembrandt lighting involves lighting one side of a model’s face completely, and leaving a triangular spot of light on the other side of the model’s face.

Now, Rembrandt lighting is extremely popular. It’s a favorite of portrait photographers, from amateurs all the way up through professionals. But what accounts for this popularity? What makes Rembrandt lighting so valuable?

Why Should You Use Rembrandt Lighting?

First, Rembrandt lighting is simple. 

You can pull it off with just a single light (and that light doesn’t have to be an expensive flash or strobe, either; you can achieve nice Rembrandt lighting with a window or a lamp).

So it’s easy for beginners to get the hang of, even with very limited equipment. 

Second, Rembrandt lighting looks amazing. 

It has a way of making the subject’s face appear three-dimensional and dramatic. It’s also just a very flattering type of lighting, so it turns out great when photographing most subjects. 

If you’re looking for an all-purpose lighting technique that will make pretty much anyone look good, Rembrandt lighting is a perfect option.

A Step-By-Step Approach to Rembrandt Lighting

Now it’s time to take a look at how you can actually achieve Rembrandt lighting.

First, I’ll discuss the simplest, easiest Rembrandt lighting setup (that literally anyone can do, even if they don’t own any artificial lights). 

Then I’ll explain a few more complex Rembrandt lighting setups, just in case you want to take your photos to the next level.

What Equipment Do You Need for Rembrandt Lighting?

If you’re happy using window light, you don’t need any special equipment for Rembrandt lighting. Note that you’ll get different results here depending on whether the light streams directly through the window.

(To soften the effect of the light and the harshness of the shadows, you can always drape a white sheet over the window!)

However, if you’re looking for more control over your Rembrandt lighting setups, then I recommend working with at least one off-camera flash, plus a reflector. A second off-camera flash (and even a third) will also pay dividends and will allow you to achieve a very refined portrait. 

The Simplest Rembrandt Lighting Setup

Here’s how the most basic Rembrandt lighting setup works:

Have your subject look forward, looking directly center.

Put a light off to the side of the subject, aimed at one side of their face. Then bring the light toward you (i.e., the photographer) slightly, so that it’s between a 45 degree and a 90 degree angle.

Raise the light, so that it’s slightly above the head of the subject, pointed down. 

Now watch the shadow on your subject’s face. Do you have the triangular pocket of light on the unlit side?

If the triangle is present but isn’t fully closed, have the subject turn their face slightly away from the light. 

If the triangle is present but smaller than you’d like, have the subject turn their face slightly toward the light.

Note that you can always have the subject shift the direction of their head, so as to achieve more or less dramatic results. 

(The more that one side of the face is shrouded in darkness, the more dramatic the image will turn out!)

By the way, if you’re using a window as your light source, you may want to position the subject on their knees, so that you’re able to get the benefit of the downward lighting. 

Also recognize that you can change the harshness of the shadows by adjusting the light source. Move the light source closer for softer shadows, farther away for harder shadows. Add a diffuser for softer shadows, use a naked flash for harder shadows. 

Make sense?

More Advanced Rembrandt Lighting Setups

The basic Rembrandt setup detailed above will take you a long way. But if you’re looking to level up your photos even more, you can absolutely make your lighting more complex.

The first way to spice things up is with a reflector. Place it on the unlit side of your subject to add some detail back into the shadows; this will reduce the level of drama slightly, but can produce a more flattering result overall.

You can also try replacing the reflector with another flash, set at much lower power than your main (i.e., key) light. 

Finally, you can make your subject really pop off the background by adding a third light, one that sits low and behind the subject and points up at the background.

And speaking of backgrounds:

There’s no one ideal backdrop for Rembrandt lighting. But darker backgrounds usually work well, especially when you angle the light sources so they don’t fall directly on the background behind the subject. 

That way, you’ll get a pitch-black background (often referred to as a low key background), which adds to the level of drama and really makes the subject stand out.

(If you’re not achieving a perfect low key background, try dropping the blacks in post-processing, or–if you want to take care of the issue while shooting–bring your subject forward so that the light no longer falls behind it.)

Short Versus Broad Light

Rembrandt lighting is simple, but you can use it for many different looks. 

One important option to be aware of is that of short lighting and broad lighting.

There are many common misconceptions regarding short lighting and broad lighting. So here’s what you need to know:

Short and broad lighting doesn’t really refer to lighting directions at all. Instead, these labels refer to the way you photograph that lighting–by either positioning your camera so that the dominant side of the face is fully lit (broad lighting) or in shadow (short lighting).

For instance, this is a face that has broad lighting, because the well-lit side is turned toward the camera:

And this is a face with short lighting, because the shadowed side is turned toward the camera:

Therefore, you can use Rembrandt lighting with both of these lighting styles; that way, you can achieve consistently unique results.

Rembrandt Lighting Versus Loop Lighting

As I’ve explained above, Rembrandt lighting requires an unbroken triangle on your subject’s face. 

But it’s often confused with loop lighting, which has a near–but not quite full!–triangle. 

Like this:

The difference, as you can see, is that loop lighting has a broken shadow next to the nose. 

Whereas Rembrandt lighting produces a triangle that’s completely closed off by shadows. 

Rembrand Lighting: Conclusion

Rembrandt lighting is a simple lighting setup, but one that you can use for gorgeous results. 

So go ahead and start practicing with Rembrandt lighting. 

And remember:

You don’t need any fancy equipment; just a single window or speedlight will do the trick!

What is Rembrandt lighting?

Rembrandt lighting refers to a form of sidelight where a triangle of light is created under the subject’s eye. It tends to be very moody, and only lights half the subject’s face for an interesting, three-dimensional result.

What’s the difference between Rembrandt and loop lighting?

Rembrandt lighting creates an unbroken triangle under the subject’s eye, whereas loop lighting creates a shadow on the subject’s cheek, but no clear triangle above it. Loop lighting is also less dramatic and moody.

Why is Rembrandt lighting so great?

Rembrandt lighting is relatively flattering–it provides shadows without overpowering the subject, which makes for sculpted, three-dimensional images.

About the Author
jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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