What Is Rembrandt Lighting And How To Use It In Your Photography

Rembrandt lighting is one of my favorite studio lighting pattern. It creates a nice dramatic, moody feel and it’s fairly uncomplicated to setup.

You don’t need a ton of fancy studio lights to pull off Rembrandt lighting. You can use a regular old desk lamp if you don’t have a Speedlight or strobe.

It’s even possible to use window light if you’re up to a slightly bigger lighting challenge.

The combination of these things makes Rembrandt lighting an ideal setup for beginners and those working with limited lighting equipment.

An example of Rembrand lighting being used in portrait photography

In this tutorial, I’ll we’re going to learn how to set your studio (or living room) up so you can start taking awesome Rembrandt light portraits.

But first, let’s talk a little bit about art history and Rembrandt lighting so you know what to expect.

What Is Rembrandt Lighting?

Rembrandt lighting is a studio portrait-lighting technique where a small inverted triangle of light is visible under the subject’s eye. It creates beautiful and compelling portraits with very little equipment. Just a single light source and a reflector do the job.

A women posing for a portrait taken using the Rembrandt lighting method.
An example of Rembrandt lighting. Photo by Jay DeFehr

Rembrandt lighting got its name from the famous painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

A drawing from the famous painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, illustrating the Rembrandt lighting
A drawing from the famous painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, illustrating the Rembrandt lighting

If you look through some of Rembrandt’s paintings, you’ll notice many of them have the something in common–a small inverted triangle of light under the subject’s eye.

Rembrandt Lighting Setup

Now that we’ve got a little bit of the history and technicalities covered, let’s get to the fun part…

You will need three things for a Rembrandt Lighting Setup:

  1. A light source
  2. Reflector
  3. and a model

If you have a studio light, perfect! If not, a standard house lamp will do. If you don’t have a reflector, find yourself a suitable substitute like a piece of cardboard covered in foil or craft yourself one of these great DIY alternatives.

Rembrandt lighting diagram
Photo by Jay DeFehr

Rembrandt Lighting Diagram

Finally, we’ve arrived at the most critical part–the lighting setup.

Okay, the location is pretty critical too, but this is the section we’ve all been waiting for. Without further ado, here’s a basic Rembrandt lighting diagram of the setup. You can use it as a guide to set up your own studio.

Rembrandt lighting diagram
A basic setup diagram for Rembrandt lighting
  • Step 1: First, place your light source (key light) at a 45-degree angle facing towards the subject. Make sure the light is just above the subject’s head, you may need to raise or lower it. Do so in small increments until you have it just right, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments to it as needed throughout the shoot.
  • Step 2: Next, put the reflector on the opposite side of the subject, at about the same height as the light source.
  • Step 3: Stand between the reflector and the light source. The subject should be directly in front of you, but facing a bit towards the light source.

See, that doesn’t look too difficult, does it?

If your light source happens to be a strobe, taking a few test shots to work out the exact positioning will be necessary.

A portrait of a women taking using the Rembrandt lighting diagram above.
Once you have the basic setup mastered, experiment with different background lighting to add more impact to your Rembrandt lighting portraits.

Best Place for Rembrandt Lighting

So what is the best location to shoot Rembrandt lighting in?

Studios are wonderful, but not everyone has access to one. If you don’t have one, look for a relatively dark location you can shoot in. I say relatively dark because you don’t want to have to try to overpower a bunch of ambient light.

A model posing for a Rembrandt lighting portrait inside a studio
A studio setup makes it easier to get rid of unwanted ambient light. However, you do not studio access for this. Photo by Dawn M. Wayand.

Shooting in a darker place will make things a lot easier for you, especially if you’re still learning the ins and outs of studio lighting.

Pro Tip: How to shoot Rembrandt lighting at home?

When I was first learning this technique, I waited until the night hours when I didn’t have to worry about window light. Of course, you can always just close the drapes if possible.

Related Article: Low key lighting guide

Photo by Janko Ferlic
Photo by Janko Ferlic

Pay Attention to Your Background

Another thing to always keep in mind when shooting a portrait is the background.

Make sure you pay attention to what’s going on in the background because the people looking at your photo most definitely will!

A male model posing for a Rembrandt lighting portrait with a clean background.
A clean background is visually pleasing. It does not distract from the main subject. This applies to any kind of portrait… not just for Rembrandt lighting setups.

If you have a cluttered space with a lot of stuff going on behind your model, consider hanging up some sort of backdrop to ensure the viewer’s eye stays where you want it–on the subject and your sweet new Rembrandt lighting skills.

Getting It Just Right

Do you see how the triangle doesn’t extend below the subject’s nose but stops just at the tip of it?

That’s important.

To be technically correct, you don’t want the triangle to be any longer than that. So when you’re taking your test shots, be sure to adjust your lighting as needed so the triangle falls just short of the nose-tip level.

A women posing for a Rembrandt lighting portrait
For a perfect Rembrandt lighting portrait, get the triangle just right. Photo by Anno Pro

Pro Tip: You can also fine-tune the size of the triangle by having your subject slowly turn their head towards the camera until the triangle is the length you want it to be.

And there you have it! Easy peasy. So get snapping and be sure to share your progress over on the platform–we’ll be looking out for your posts!

If you are interested in reading more about the art history in photography please give that article a read.

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About the author

Ramesh Yahathugoda

My love for photography started when I went on a hiking trip to Alberta's Banff national park. I have more than 10 years of experience shooting nature and landscape photography and I am a member of Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC).

My passion is to help others become better photographers. I share photography knowledge and review camera gear on PhotoBlog's official blog to achieve that goal. In my spare time, I love to read, run, and go on hikes! To see my latest adventures, visit my travel photography blog here on PhotoBlog.com

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