Skip to content
Home » Photography Tips and Guides » How To Shoot Rembrandt Portrait Lighting

How To Shoot Rembrandt Portrait Lighting

Rembrandt portrait lighting is a lighting pattern with a triangle of light cast on the shadowed portion of your subject’s face. Learn more with our latest guide for using Rembrandt Portrait Lighting for your photo compositions in 2020.

What is Rembrandt Portrait Lighting?

2018 Photography Challenge: Rembrandt Portrait Lighting

Named after the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt lighting is a portrait lighting pattern on the shadow side of the face while highlighting the other side. One distinct characteristic of Rembrandt Portrait Lighting is the triangle of light on the check cast in shadow, often found in low key photography.

Using the Rembrandt technique in your portrait photography adds a dramatic flair to your photo without being overly harsh. It’s one of the six basic lighting techniques that many portrait photographers use when shooting and it adds a slimming effect to most subjects, especially those with round faces. It’s also often used by beginner photographers looking to gain more experience with low key lighting. 

How to do Rembrandt Lighting

It’s simple to achieve this effect in your photos. Although studio lighting is preferred, you can also achieve this effect with any single light source, whether that’s through natural sunlight or the flash feature on your phone.

This might sound complicated, but Rembrandt didn’t have electricity when painting his portraits, so don’t be discouraged!

Your light source should be placed at an angle of 45 degrees to the front of your subject above eye level. The face of your subject should be turned away from the main light source.

2018 Photography Challenge: Rembrandt Portrait Lighting Triangle Lighting

One problem that may arise is that your light source may be illuminating too much of your subject’s face if you’re using an extraneous source like a window. To correct this, cover up the bottom of the light source to get the amount of lighting just right.

You can also a secondary source of light on the opposite side, in which case your supplement lighting should be at half the intensity as your main source.

Another thing to watch out for is making sure you’re capturing the light in at least one of your subject’s eyes to bring life to the photo and add that dramatic flair.

The most important aspect to tweak in Rembrandt Lighting is that your inverted triangle of light doesn’t go below the nose of your subject. Some people’s facial features or noses don’t lend well to Rembrandt Lighting, so play with the positioning of your lighting and if it isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try something else.

Achieving Rembrandt Lighting in my Portrait Photo

2018 Photography Challenge: Rembrandt Portrait Lighting Header Photo

This week’s challenge proved to be quite difficult. I’m more suited to nature photography and have never shot a subject for portrait photography. Setting up my equipment wasn’t much of a challenge and I used a white curtain backdrop, a stand with clips to affix the curtain in place, one studio light with a stand and my usual photography equipment.

With my Pentax K-50 and SMC Pentax-M 50mm F4 Macro Lens in hand, I took quite a few photos in my efforts to get the desired effect with my subject.

Two considerations that hindered the proper shadowing in my photo included a TV casting light on the shaded half of my subject’s face and I shot at night, casting a harsh light that required quite a bit of post editing to correct.

The Rembrandt inverted light triangle is casted below my subject’s nose, which isn’t what I wanted for this week’s photo challenge.

My positioning of my subject wasn’t adequate at first and I realized that I needed to have their face slightly angled to compensate for where my lighting was.

I’m not entirely pleased with how the photo turned out this week, but it was a great learning experience that I will carry with me in my journey to becoming a more well-rounded photographer.

Post-Editing Effects for Rembrandt Lighting

This is where I really screwed up. I performed my color correction first in Adobe Lightroom, removing all the saturation from the photo. Below are my color correction edits:

  • Contrast: +50
  • Highlights: -100
  • Shadows: -74
  • Whites: +100
  • Clarity: +50
  • Saturation: -100

I then popped the photo into Adobe Photoshop to make the background a dark gray/black. Because I performed the color edits first, the desaturation made it hell to quick select my subject from the background and perform the background adjustments in a separate levels layer.

The curtain backdrop also ruined any thoughts of making the background a dark gray as the wrinkles and creases were unsightly and difficult to remove, so I opted for a black background instead. I needed backdrop paper instead of a curtain, which is more suited for producing vlogs.

Because the background was adjusted to be black, my subject’s hair outline was completely messed up. Their hair was also parted in various sections so when I quick selected their frame, the white of the curtain was still showing so I had to use the brush tool to fill those white sections in without removing too much of their hair or making it obvious that editing was done.

Luckily the sheen of their hair provided some contrast/definition against the black background, but it looks a little too stark compared to the rest of the subject’s face.

It was a rough process, but the other problem that arose was my subject’s face almost looking pock-marked from my desaturation adjustments, the black background blending in, their hair on the right side of their face and the harsh lighting. My macro lens probably didn’t help either considering how much detail it can pick up as it’s typically used for capturing fine details from small objects and insects.

I quick selected their body again, made another layer and added a blur effect to their face to remove the wrinkles and pock-marks. I also used the healing patch tool for further correction edits.

The before and after for the photo are night and day, but smoothness of my subject’s face conflicts with the sharpness brought about by her hair outline/contrast. I debated using the brush tool again to fill in her hair, but without the outline it looked like a head floating in the black void, so I called it a day before going overboard with more edits.

Again, I’m not entirely happy with how the photo turned out, but that’s the entire point of this challenge, to grow as a photographer, step outside of my comfort zone and try out new techniques and ideas for shooting photos.