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Rembrandt Lighting Exposed In Photography

Aspiring Photographers Learn From The Masters

Some of the greatest photographers in the world that I’ve met over my 32-plus years as a photographer, made their mark by simply studying the styles, ideas and techniques of other artists, whether it was their mentor photographer or one of their favorite painters. Ultimately they all shared a common goal, to attain the ability to create better quality photographs as they progressed in their careers while refining their style.

Chiaroscuro Lighting in Photography, Rembrandt Natural Lighting

Chiaroscuro in photography is the intermixing of the lights and darks to create the illusion of depth.

This might explain why most photography instructors and some of the top photography schools, like Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbra, love to teach their students four fundamental concepts of lighting, Paramount, Split, Loop and Rembrandt.   The latter type of photographic lighting is named after Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, the great Dutch painter himself.

The Rembrandt form of lighting in photography is my favorite that I’ve learned over the years to incorporate into my style of shooting, simply because of how it assimilates itself to chiaroscuro.  Chiaroscuro is one technique that helps artists, photographers or painters, bring life and realism to their two-dimensional mediums (the canvas or photo) by utilizing lights and darks to create an illusion of a third dimension. In the case of photographers, it’s all about the lighting and don’t fool yourself, Rembrandt lighting isn’t specifically tied to artificial lighting, such as a studio flash. It’s easily found within natural, ambient or existing light and it”s actually created on how you place your subject into the light, not the light into the subject.

Rembrandt lighting in photography, photo of Sheila

Rembrandt lighting doesn’t require flash, as in this photo of Sheila taken with natural window light. Sheila basically turned away from the window toward the camera to establish the triangle of light underneath her eye–the Rembrandt signature.

That placement of the subject into the light, or for example, having your subject turn their head away or into the light, is key to Rembrandt lighting in order to create the triangle shape of light underneath the eye.  Usually that geometric shape of light is found on the eye furthest from the camera lens, but that is not a must in order to gain success with Rembrandt lighting.  Success with Rembrandt lighting is geared more on ensuring that one side of the face is illuminated well from the main light source while the other side of the face sports a nose shadow, then a triangle of light underneath the eye, as the light fades to shadow on the side of the cheek.

Like triangles in posing, triangles in lighting are effective too, but certain geometric rules apply for effective Rembrandt lighting in photography.  One, the base of the triangle, which is located directly underneath the eye, should not exceed the width of the eye and the height of the triangle, should not exceed the length of the nose as it comes down. While we’re not going to break out protractors and force you do some mathematical equations, I will tell you in this type of triangle, produced by light and shadows, there is no hypotenuse as we’re not necessarily after a right triangle. The goal here is more of an acute triangle where any two sides of the triangle never form more than a 90-degree angle and no two sides form less than a zero-degree angle.

From, History of Photography
The first permanent photograph (later accidentally destroyed) was an image produced in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. His photographs were produced on a polished pewter plate covered with a petroleum derivative called bitumen of Judea. Bitumen hardens with exposure to light. The unhardened material may then be washed away and the metal plate polished, rendering a negative image which then may be coated with ink and impressed upon paper, producing a print. Niépce then began experimenting with silver compounds based on a Johann Heinrich Schultz discovery in 1724 that a silver and chalk mixture darkens when exposed to light.

In partnership, Niépce (in Chalon-sur-Saône) and Louis Daguerre (in Paris) refined the existing silver process. In 1833 Niépce died of a stroke, leaving his notes to Daguerre. While he had no scientific background, Daguerre made two pivotal contributions to the process. He discovered that exposing the silver first to iodine vapour before exposure to light, and then to mercury fumes after the photograph was taken, could form a latent image. Bathing the plate in a salt bath then fixes the image. On January 7, 1839 Daguerre announced that he had invented a process using silver on a copper plate called the daguerreotype. The French government bought the patent and immediately made it public domain.

Basically, I’m trying to paint you a picture of what makes ideal Rembrandt lighting and I’m not trying to torture you into learning the history of mathematics, that alone starts back thousands of years before Christ whereas Rembrandt, a master at using chiaroscuro, dates back as far back as the mid-1600’s, hence why this style of lighting is named in his honor as it’s closer to the birth of the first permanent photograph in the early 1800’s.

What’s important here is not how harsh or soft the shadows are, or the exact geometric shape of the triangle (within the rules), but the illusion of depth it creates to bring the life out of a two-dimensional medium.  Why?  Because we normally see the world in the third dimension—that’s reality—and a digital camera captures it in a two-dimensional format.

What’s fascinating about Rembrandt lighting is the lack of requirement that the shadows be hard or soft, just evident, no matter how subtle or prominent the appearance.  Obviously, the harder the shadow line in Rembrandt lighting, the more dramatic a photograph can appear.  The key is simply to produce both highlight and shadow areas where they coincide against each other.  (Note: The farther you move your light source from the subject, the harder the shadows, the closer the light source to your subject, the softer the shadows.)

It’s these third dimensional illusions that top photographers create in their photographs, usually late in their careers, subconsciously as they shoot because they’ve learned to feel and see the light in any given situation.  These photographers fully understand that Rembrandt and chiaroscuro add impact, life and form to their images.  It’s not a secret, it’s a photographer being cognizant of light and shadows and how they interact around their subject.

Unfortunately with on-camera flash it’s difficult to achieve this illusion of dimensions unless you use your flash slightly off the camera lens axis. Besides avoiding hot spots created by the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection, this is a typical technique used by top wedding photographers—a side-bracket-mounted flash unit. The down side of using on-camera or side-mounted flash is the lack of a modeling light to see the effect of the light on your subject until after the picture is taken, and this is when you chimp the camera’s LCD screen.

Rembrandt lighting in photography, photo of Candice

Rembrandt lighting is flattering to your subject and helps define her facial structure as in this photo of Candice N.

However, with studio flash, both on location or in the actual studio, a photographer can use the “modeling” light in a flash head to instantly identify where the shadows and highlights fall, thus positioning the subject until Rembrandt lighting is evident, certainly makes it easier to achieve.  An experienced photographer who fails to see chiaroscuro or Rembrandt lighting on their subject during a photo shoot will simply have their subject turn in or away from the light, gradually, while watching where the light strikes until the Rembrandt triangle is formed.

Rembrandt lighting in photography, photo of Jenni

It’s all about the angles when it comes to photographic lighting and in this photo of Elite Agency model Jenni, simply having her turn her face toward the camera and away from the light, forms the Rembrandt triangle of light.

As mentioned in the earlier photoblog posts, it’s all about the angles when it comes to lighting.  Angles can determine soft or hard light in the physics of light, but angles in posing can determine the style of lighting, especially when capitalizing on the Rembrandt effect. Great aspiring photographers figure this out, either from their photographic mentor or by studying the styles and techniques of some of the greatest photographers and artists over the years.  These aspiring photographers also take what they’ve learned then apply and refine it until they discover their own photographic style—eventually leaving their mark.

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