Rembrandt Lighting in Your Portrait Photography

February 01

16 min. to read

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Rembrandt lighting is one of the most popular portrait lighting techniques. Learn what it is and how it's done in this informative article.

Beginner photographers often struggle to find the right lighting in their portraits. Knowing how and where to set up the right type of photography lighting can distinguish a casual shot from a professional-looking portrait. One type of lighting that will immediately add depth to your photography is called Rembrandt lighting. This article deals with all the ins and outs of the Rembrandt style in portrait lightning.

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Rembrandt photography basics

Rembrandt lighting takes its name from the great Dutch painter who used the same type of light when painting his portraits. You can observe some of his paintings as face lighting reference. This lighting effect is created when the face of the model is illuminated on one side and the other side is left in the dark, but with a little exception. There’s a small inverted triangle of light on the less-illuminated cheek, opposite the light source. Another tip to keep in mind is that the patch of light shouldn’t be overly big, being the same width as the eye above it, while at the same time the tip of the inverted triangle shouldn’t extend below the model’s nose. By just following these simple rules you can take impressive Rembrandt portraits.

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Rembrandt lighting gear

You won’t need complicated gear for Rembrandt lighting. Just get your camera and choose appropriate portrait backgrounds, a main light source, and a supplementary light source (optional). Rembrandt lighting is most easily achieved with directional light. This means that the light should be come from one source. If you don’t have a suitable lamp, even one window with light coming from it into the room is enough. In fact, you can use direct sunlight, a beauty dish, or a lamp as long as the light flatters your subject. What matters is the overall effect you achieve in the final image. The light source should be placed above eye level at an angle of about 45 degrees to the front of your subject. Use a face lighting reference to see exactly how the camera should be placed. Of course, you can shift the angle or adjust the position of the model’s face until you achieve that perfect inverted triangle. Additionally, you’ll need to edit your photos in good photo editing software. Luminar works great for all kinds of photographs, including portraits.

Natural lighting

One of the best things about Rembrandt lighting is that it can be achieved with natural lighting: that is, a simple window with light coming through it. Some photographers even prefer window light because it’s soft and flattering to most skin types. Another perk of working with light coming from the window is that people are used to it. Your models will be comfortable and will act more naturally in front of the camera. Indeed, apart from lighting, any photographer needs to consider how to make their model comfortable and which male and female poses work best for their models for a face portrait. Make sure that on the day of the photoshoot there’s no harsh direct sunlight, but that the sky is cloudy. This way light will diffuse. If the sun is overly bright, think about moving your shoot to a room with a north-facing window. Another trick is to hang a white sheet in front of the window, which will help you mimic the effect of an overcast sky.

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Additional photography lighting

In some cases, you may also need a supplementary light source to get some additional lighting on the opposite side in your Rembrandt photography face portrait. Make sure that the secondary light source is roughly half the intensity of the key light source and is placed below eye level for best results. You can use a reflector or a secondary light source; the type of light doesn’t particularly matter. What you should pay attention to is matching the color temperatures in your face portrait. For example, if you’re using a reflector, silver or white will best reproduce the temperature of the key light source. Mismatched light sources are difficult to correct even in a good photo enhancer.

Flattering face lighting

The reason Rembrandt lighting is so popular is because of the dimension and depth it adds to your portraits. That’s what makes a photograph so interesting and pleasing to the eye, drawing attention to the model just by the means of face lighting. It’s a great type of photography for people with prominent cheekbones, as it can accentuate those features. It also suits people with full or round faces, as the part that stays in the dark hides the unflattering roundness. At the same time, Rembrandt lighting isn’t a good choice for narrow faces, as it slims down the face even more. This type of face lighting is reminiscent of the classic Hollywood portraits, which remind us both of drama and sensuality. Remember that the mood set by this type of photograph is dark and dramatic. Your model shouldn’t smile too brightly or otherwise pull an unsuitable facial expression for this mood to be realized fully.

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Another detail to keep in mind apart from lighting on the face when shooting any type of portrait is catchlight. With the help of catchlight, the eyes of your model will appear lively and bright. Additionally, catchlight accentuates the color of the iris. If you’re doing family portraits, it’s important that all members of the family have catchlights. In order to spot them, look at the model’s eyes. There should be a white reflection of the light you’ve used in the model’s eyes. At least one of the eyes should have the catchlight to give life to a portrait, but it’s better if both the eyes have this sparkle. Take a look at this dog’s eyes to understand exactly what catchlight is!

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Other types of portrait lighting

There are different types of portrait lighting that suit different people and different occasions. Learn them all to avoid mistakes during your next photoshoot.

Split lighting

Split lighting is a type of portrait lighting that splits the face of the model in equal halves. One side is in bright light, the other in shadow. This type of photography lighting is popular for dramatic portraits, for example those of movie stars or singers on the cover of posters. It flatters people with round faces, as it makes them appear slimmer. Make sure that the light source is placed on one side of the model, preferably at eye level. Ideally, it should be 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind their head. Adjust the position of the light or the subject’s face until you’re completely satisfied with the result.

Loop lighting

If you create a small shadow of your model’s nose on their cheek, this means that you’re using loop portrait lighting. With loop lighting, the shadow of the nose and the shadow of the cheek don’t touch like they do in Rembrandt lighting. To achieve loop lighting, place the light source slightly higher than eye level and about 30 to 45 degrees from the camera. The reason it should be placed above eye level is because this way the loop shadow will angle towards the corner of the mouth. If the light is placed lower, it will illuminate the bottom of the nose, which is undesirable. Be aware that people with high or prominent cheekbones will look good with this type of lighting, but those with small noses or a flat bridge may not. Even so, this type of photography lighting is one of the most common, as it flatters most people.

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Butterfly lighting

The poetic name of this type of portrait lighting comes from the butterfly pattern of the shadow that appears under the nose of the model when we place the main light source above and directly behind the camera. This means that the photo gets shot underneath the light source. Butterfly lighting is used for glamour shots. It creates shadows under the cheeks and chin. It’s flattering for older people, as it makes wrinkles appear less prominent. Additionally, someone with prominent cheekbones and a slim face will also look striking with the butterfly pattern. Models with a round, wide face will look better with loop lighting or even split lighting, which slims the face. You can use face lighting reference to see what lighting will work best based on your model’s complexion. To achieve butterfly lighting, you need a harder light source like the sun or a flash for a more defined shadow in the form of a butterfly pattern under the nose.

Broad lighting

All of the portrait lighting photography techniques such as Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting mentioned above can be done either with broad or short lighting. To achieve broad lighting, turn the model’s face slightly away from the center. The broader side of the face which is turned toward the camera will be in the light. This means that a larger portion of the face will be in the light, while the shadow side will appear smaller. You can use broad lighting for high-key portraits. This photo lighting can be used for someone with a slim face to make their face appear broader, taking up more space.

Short lighting

As the name suggests, short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. Turn your model’s face towards the source of light. Even a window will work fine for natural lighting photography. This will make the shadows appear on the largest part of the face. This type of photography lighting can be used for low-key, or darker, portraits. It’s slimming and flattering for most people. You can still combine Rembrandt lighting with the short style and achieve a unique and wonderful effect. However, it’s better to use a face lighting reference to see if this style will suit your particular model.

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Rembrandt lighting is a simple, effective photography lighting setup that’s flattering to a wide variety of faces and is easy to master quickly. It’s possible to achieve using just your camera and a single light source. When you’ve chosen the best photography lighting, taken your portraits, and achieved the effect you wanted with the most appropriate face lighting, it’s time to edit your photos. Luminar is a great tool because it also lets you remove blemishes, soften the skin of your subjects, and adjust the photo lighting and shadows to make your model stand out. If you’re not ready to buy Luminar, you can try it absolutely free by clicking the button below. Maybe it will be just the software you need to achieve that stunning effect.

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