Rembrandt Lighting: What It Is & How To Use It

It’s always a bright idea for creatives to learn versatile skills to accommodate an array of clients’ tastes. One of the more distinctive styles that photographers and cinematographers can easily master is Rembrandt lighting, named, of course, after the Dutch painter and his trademark style of portraiture effect. Rembrandt may well have been the original Thomas Kincaid, the other master of light.

Once you learn to recognize this technique, you’ll start to see it everywhere. It’s such a distinguishing look that can easily elevate your portfolio. It’s super simple to set up and doesn’t take too long to learn to get it just right. It requires literally no additional studio gear and creates an intense mood that can enhance various artistic and commercial projects.

While most of this article goes over the use of Rembrandt lighting in the context of studio photography, you can apply the info to moviemaking and stage lighting as well. As long as the setting is relatively dark and the background is kept simple, Rembrandt lighting will work out fab.

What is Rembrandt lighting?

portrait of person
Source: Pexels

Rembrandt lighting is a romantic, dramatic effect most often used in portraiture. A small triangle of light is aimed directly below the subject’s eye, on the cheek. This triangle of light is a feature that many of Rembrandt’s portrait paintings have in common. Viewers don’t notice it unless they’re taught to look for it – but you know it when you see it.

How and why filmmakers and photographers use Rembrandt lighting?

portrait of a man
Source: Unsplash

This technique is most often used to evoke a dramatic effect in low-key portraiture. While it’s straightforward, Rembrandt lighting can provide a simultaneously serious or intense and natural aesthetic.

The high contrast effect places an intense focus on the subject, which is almost always a person. And yet, it looks soft and approachable. It also creates a slimming illusion, elongating round faces (the principle works for makeup contouring as well).

It is an ideal lighting style for a noir-style film or photoshoot. In stage lighting, it’s perhaps best suited for a monologue or to dramatize documentaries that feature a lot of so-called talking heads. The light triangle adds suspense, mystery, and even a tinge of suspicion without advanced equipment.

Perhaps the most notable example of Rembrandt lighting in film is Cecil B. DeMille’s noir-style portraiture shots. In fact, it was DeMille who allegedly coined the name of the technique! Cinematographers have popularized the style, including Alejandro G. Iñárittu in his Oscar-winning “Birdman” of 2014. Check out this clip that shows how he used Rembrandt lighting to evoke some serious drama.

How to execute the technique

Bright and Spacious Loft new york city nyc rental
Source: Peerspace

According to an article on Photoblog.com, Rembrandt lighting involves three steps.

  • Aim your key light from about five feet from the model and tilt it at a 45º angle. The light needs to hit just above or below the model’s head – usually about two feet above their eye. Adjust throughout the shoot as needed. Pro tip: in order to make micro-adjustments, it’s simpler to move the subject than it is to move the light.
  • Place the projector opposite the light source, at about the same height.
  • The photographer stands in front of the subject, between the light and the reflector. The model angles just a tiny bit toward the light.

Next, you shoot your photos. Especially when first learning the technique, start in a dark space – substantially more dark than you’d probably normally shoot. Make sure you don’t have much going on in the background. Clutter will only detract from the subject.

Watch this video by Jordan P. Anderson to learn how to apply the technique specifically to film.

Take your Rembrandt lighting game to the next level by:

  • Adding secondary lights to differentiate the subject from the background and to fill in dark shadows
  • Placing the subject by a bright or less-than-bright window (which tends to add more little triangles), and
  • Asking the model to tilt into or away from the key light

What gear is required for the effect?

softbox lighting production tools
Source: Pexels

Photoblog.com notes that Rembrandt lighting is so easy to accomplish that the cameraperson needs exactly zero pieces of special gear to do it right. It requires only three elements: a reflector, a light source, and a model (or something at which to aim your camera).

Hint: for a makeshift reflector, just wrap a piece of aluminum foil around a piece of cardboard. As for the light source, even a thrift store desk lamp will do the trick instead of a pricy strobe or Speedlight.

This means that photographers and moviemakers don’t have to spend a single dime practicing the technique – just a little time and tweaking, and you’re good! What’s more is, because this lighting style requires basically no gear, it can be executed literally anywhere – perfect for photographers who travel a lot.

Because of its high-impact effect, adding Rembrandt lighting to your arsenal of creative abilities can translate into clients and referrals. Talk about a return on investment!

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