What is Rembrandt Lighting? How to use it for portrait photography

If you want your photography to look and feel like art, you have more than a few sources of inspiration that you can turn to. Nor are we talking about people like Mondrian, Pollack or even Goya.

Rembrandt was an artist who worked and lived in the seventeenth century. His work is some of the most celebrated in all of art history, and much of it has to do with the way he used light in each composition.

Rembrandt’s spirit lives on today through our own work. In this Rembrandt lighting tutorial, we will discuss some of the finer aspects of this technique. You will throw it down like a professional in no time.

What is Rembrandt Lighting? Definition, history and heritage

Rembrandt Lighting Portraits {{PD-US}}

Rembrandt lighting is a popular way to illuminate a portrait. A better question to ask at this point could be: who was Rembrandt in the first place?

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was one of the world’s greatest Dutch baroque artists who has ever seen the light of day. He was a master portrait painter, including many beautiful reproductions of himself. One aspect of his work that we still love and use ourselves: Rembrandt-style lighting. You will find it in almost every example of his work with portraits.


Many people tend to associate Rembrandt’s light photography with the muted stylings of his predecessors, such as the Caravaggio – but classic, it’s actually a much more subtle look.

A relevant vocabulary word to remember is the concept chiaroscuro, which is basically the practice of applying a highly contrasting relationship between values ​​across the face. If the dark side and the light side are very different, you are recording like a baroque.

You may notice that all five portraits above have something in common, except for the fact that they all appear to be illuminated by only a single light source. What exactly is the Rembrandt “triangle”? How is it used for portrait photography?

What is the Rembrandt Triangle?

Rembrandt Lighting Portraits Details {{PD-US}}

Rembrandt triangles refers to the characteristic spot of light that looks over the dark side of the face, usually right on the cheekbone.

As you can see, we have the Rembrandt triangle in each of these portraits called out in red. Rembrandt was famous for refining this look and mastering it in his work. Rembrandt-style photography uses the same luminous trope – the key light just needs to kiss the dark side of the face, resulting in a perfect Rembrandt triangle.

Using the Rembrandt triangle to shape the light around the subject is our most recommended Rembrandt lighting technique; it acts as the perfect reference point and shows you exactly how the light winds around the model’s profile.

Why Rembrandt’s lighting technology lives on

Rembrandt light photography

This portrait style flatters the face while still providing enough detail to distinguish it; a particularly effective approach when there are many faces in the frame. Rembrandt light naturally focuses on the subject, so that the background to a certain extent falls off tonally. This is cinematography 101; it keeps the viewer’s eyes right where you want them.

All in all, it’s a humanistic approach throughout. Rembrandt’s lighting makes ordinary events and gatherings feel like history in the mold. It is an iconic look and it is unbelievably easy to perform in your own work.

How to use Rembrandt Lighting in photography

Rembrandt lighting, made possible with a little help from the sun.

If you are familiar with the three-point lighting model for portrait photography, Rembrandt photography will probably come naturally to you.

It’s pretty much the same setup with an offset key light, minimal fill and an optional kicker; instead of showcasing the face in all its glory, we romanticize the viewer and leave a certain amount of detail to the imagination.

How to Create a Rembrandt Lighting Setup

Rembrandt lighting from two reference points.

Rembrandt lighting at home is actually more than easy to achieve. In fact, we would even go so far as to claim that Rembrandt-style lighting is a matter of configuration entirely, neither more nor less.

What does it mean to you? That means you do not even need any equipment to do this other than your camera and a face for photography.

The necessities for a Rembrandt lighting portrait are:

  • The subject.

  • A camera facing the subject.

  • A key light, 45 degrees above the subject and 45 degrees to the side (it should hit the bright side of the face and just foam over the bridge of the nose).

  • A reflector or a jump card (if you prefer a slightly less dramatic ratio of values ​​on each side of the face).

Your key light can be literally anything – a street lamp, a floor lamp, a strobe, a speedlight or even just the sun. What matters most is the position of your light source relative to the face you are photographing, just so little that it comes to the dark side.

Once you’ve got it all up and running, you’ll be able to experiment with your lighting scheme and make small adjustments that are unique to your own style and preferences.

A few Rembrandt lighting variants to try:

  • Change the position of the key light so that it is in one extreme or another – flood the subject’s face with light, or just reach the dark side of the face.

  • Play with different levels and configurations of diffusion – heavy, quiet, applied to the head, or perhaps cutting the light from the frame of a window.

  • Try strange light sources – computer or TV screens, burst fluorescent tubes, a sodium vapor lamp (if you can get mitts on one).

  • Incorporates some extra filling or maybe backlighting into the mix.

The elegance of the Rembrandt schema lies in its simplicity; it keeps your shot lightly on your feet, all without compromising on an ounce of style. It is the perfect vessel to co-opt and to make your own, and tailor your setup so that it does exactly what you need it to.

Other than that, it’s really up to you. Try it, put a new spin on it, and see what you can come up with.

Related: What is the Golden Hour in Photography?

Rembrandt Lighting Photography: A Brand Nearn 400 Years in the Making

Rembrandt’s light is without a doubt one of the greatest triumphs in the history of portraiture. One thing is for sure: The man certainly knew what he was doing, and that was long before Hollywood and Fashion Week.

You should definitely give this technique a shot, especially if you are ever used to inspiration in the field. It’s a great baseline setup to start with that evolves naturally into more advanced lighting arrangements as you go along. Let the sparks fly.

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