Rembrandt Lighting Tutorial

Low key portrait of Terence Stamp by David Bailey

Rembrandt lighting is a well-known lighting set up used in studio portrait photography; with patience and some effort you can achieve this at home without any special equipment.
As the name suggests, its been around a long time. Rembrandt’s work often characterised this type of lighting which he employed to great effect.
The key in true Rembrandt lighting is creating the triangle or diamond shape of light underneath the eye. One side of the face is lit well from the main light source while the other side of the face uses the interaction of shadows and light, also known as chiaroscuro*, to create this geometric form on the face.
The triangle should be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye. This technique may be achieved subtly or very dramatically by altering the distance between subject and lights and relative strengths of main and fill lights.
The the key light is placed high and to one side at the front, and the fill-in light or reflector is placed half-height on the other side at the front, set to about one third the power of the key light, with the key light illuminating the triangle on the far side of the face.
If you don’t have any photographic lighting try using soft light from a window as the key light. It works best if its just one small window and the background is some distance away. Use the telephoto end of the lens and a wide aperture to create an out of focus background.
Rembrandt lighting was successfully employed by the holy trinity of photographers in the 60’s, namely David Bailey and fellow East Enders Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. If you take a look at current advertising images of celebrities endorsing merchandise you will see it greatly in evidence.
* The word chiaroscuro is Italian for light and shadow. It’s one of the classic techniques used in the works of artists like Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Caravaggio. It refers to the use of light and shadow to create the illusion of light from a specific source shining on the figures and objects in the painting. Richard Bishop