Photographic Inspiration: What can we learn from Rembrandt?

 
‘Self-Portrait with Two Circles’ (c. 1665-1669)

‘Self-Portrait with Two Circles’ (c. 1665-1669)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 - October 4, 1669) was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history. His contributions to art came in a period that historians call the Dutch Golden Age. As a modern day photographer, what can we learn from one of the greatest portrait painters to have ever lived? What can we use from his artistic thought process, approach and application in our own creative endeavours?

Firstly, here is a little insight into who the man was: ‘Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardship. Yet his drawings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high and for twenty years he taught nearly every important Dutch painter. Rembrandt’s greatest creative triumphs are exemplified especially in his portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits and illustrations of scenes from the Bible. The self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.’

His work is is both simple and beautifully deep. Much of his work uses soft light to pick out his subject and a darker background, emphasising the figure in his paintings. In painting this is known as ‘Chiaroscuro’. Photographers often refer to a similar technique as ‘isolating the subject’. Though I realise our term is not quite so eloquent or poetic!

This video created by the National Gallery in London, is a wonderful dive into his series of self portraits. It is well worth the watch time if you want to learn more about his process, life and work.

So, Rembrandt lighting, what does it look like? What does this mean to a photographer?

Photography is the newest artistic medium, it is the modern form of representation. Therefore, learning from the ‘Old Masters’ is an extremely valuable asset to us. They had to read and understand light to such a great degree to be able to produce the time-honoured artworks that we enjoy today. To become a great photographer is much the same, understanding and the utilising the correct employment of light makes all the difference in the photos you produce. Through viewing Rembrandt’s work, you will notice a theme in the way that he chose to light his subjects. This has become known as ‘Rembrandt Lighting’.

This is my friend Jake, I was shooting some corporate portraits for him and decided to employ soft Rembrandt lighting in a few of the images. Here I have used a window instead of a flash unit.

This is my friend Jake, I was shooting some corporate portraits for him and decided to employ soft Rembrandt lighting in a few of the images. Here I have used a window instead of a flash unit.

Rembrandt lighting is a well-known lighting setup that is used predominantly in portrait photography. To achieve the effect seen in his paintings, one half of the subject’s face is fully illuminated whilst the other half, usually the side furthest away from the camera is in partial shadow, with a very distinct triangle of light under the eye on the shadowed side. Thankfully the setup at its most basic uses just the one light source, so is easy to recreate and practice.

To be a true Rembrandt lighting setup, the triangle of illuminated light should be no wider than the eye, and no longer than the nose. However, this style of lighting is particularly dramatic, not always appropriate for all faces or the style you are looking for. In the picture on the right, I have employed a ‘soft Rembrandt light’, although the triangle is wider than traditionally it would be, it does create a more flattering look for his face shape.

Another key feature of Rembrandt lighting is the triangular catch lights that can be found in the eyes of the model.

So how to do I set up to achieve the traditional Rembrandt look?

Rembrandt lighting can be achieved with one key light that is placed approximately 5 feet from the subject at an angle of 45 degrees to the side of the camera and roughly 2 feet above their eye level angled downwards. This is shown (apart from the height and angle) in the lighting diagram below (just don’t use the reflector). Position the subject’s body so that it is facing towards this key light. Take a couple of test shots and adjust the subject’s facing position until you are satisfied with how the light and shadows fall onto the models face. If you are looking for a strong, dramatic look with lots of contrast, then using the one light source will be a good starting point.

A Lighting Diagram showing how to set up Rembrandt Lighting. The Softbox with Strobe can very easily be replaced by a window (as Rembrandt would have done!). The reflector is optional, it just softens the shadows from being so deep. Play with and without this included!

A Lighting Diagram showing how to set up Rembrandt Lighting. The Softbox with Strobe can very easily be replaced by a window (as Rembrandt would have done!). The reflector is optional, it just softens the shadows from being so deep. Play with and without this included!

Rembrandt Lighting – One Light, One Reflector Setup:

Rembrandt Lighting is absolutely achievable with the single light source, especially if you are wanting to remain true to the original creator. However, adding a second light or reflector will result in a more natural look, used to fill some of the shadow depth. Merely add your second light or reflector opposite the key light, at eye level, angled towards their face. Adjust the distance that the reflector is from the subject to control how much fill you want to add. If using a second light, start with it at half the power of the key light and adjust to get desired levels.

The wonderful thing about Rembrandt lighting is that you don’t have to be a master painter to achieve the same dramatic feeling. If done properly, no-one looks bad in this light! Experiment with power, angle, height and distance to achieve the best look for each unique face in front of your camera. Remember everyone is different, and therefore needs different adjustments to suit!

This setup is largely very simple and if you’re a keen photographer you’ll most likely have most of the gear you need already.  With a little practice, trial and error, you can achieve professional looking portraits without the need for the professionally priced equipment. Learning from the masters of light, like Rembrandt, will enable you to advance your photography at a rapid rate. And if you do decide to try your hand at this fantastically effective setup please don’t forget the most important thing, to have FUN!

What you need:

  • Camera with lens (35-85mm range is ideal for portraits)

  • Off Camera Lightsource (strobe, flashgun or window)

  • Light stands (if using strobe or flashgun)

  • A Reflector (5 in 1 versions are a great investment)

  • A Subject (person or mannequin head if practising)