By Christopher Grey
Published by SekonicLighting expert Chris Grey explains how to create this painterly style of portrait lighting, and shows how variations on a Rembrandt lighting setup can achieve subtle changes in the mood of the image.
Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.
Looking for a new twist to your portrait lighting? Here’s a lighting scenario that’s simple, dramatic, and extremely evocative. A true “painterly” light, this style is named after the Dutch artist and the way he painted the light that fell on his models. Legend has it that, like many of the starving artists of his time, Rembrandt worked in a small, dingy room that was anything but a studio. The only natural light came from a small skylight set high in the ceiling, which threw deep, long shadows under his subject’s eyes, nose, and chin.
This style is easily adapted to photography, although it is more often used on men than women. The length and depth of the shadows and the direction of the light promote a certain moodiness in the image. Men are more apt to appreciate images in which they appear "dark" or "brooding."
Working with Rembrandt Light: A One-Light Rembrandt Build
To create a one-light portrait, I began by placing my model just far enough from the background paper that the light would spill onto it yet allow his shadow to fall out of frame. In a scenario like this, where the background and clothing are dark, it’s important to have the light fall on the background to his shadow side. This will define his form and give the shadows "weight," without allowing the dark tones to merge together.
Lowering the camera about 6 inches gives him an aloof attitude, because he's now looking down on the viewer.
I raised the camera again and set up a white reflector 3 feet from my subject to open up the shadows. I had to meter again to get the correct exposure, because additional light had been introduced into the scenario.
Splitting the difference, I moved the reflector 1.5 feet toward my subject, gaining 1/2 stop of light. I also moved the camera up so my point of view is on an even level with his face. That makes him automatically look friendlier, even if he is smiling.
A Second Rembrandt Build
For the next Rembrandt scenario I aimed my key light—an 18-inch beauty dish with a 40-degree grid spot—at my subject from high on camera-left. I wanted deep shadows, so I placed a bookend with a black side on camera-right, to soak up any bounce that might open the shadows. The background is a 6-inch parabolic reflector fitted with a 20-degree grid spot, aimed at the floor and just skimming the background. To soak up any extra light that might bounce around, I put a piece of black velour cloth on the floor. I kept the background about a stop dimmer than the key light.
I pulled the background light up and away from the wall to light over the top of his head. It’s nice, but my feeling is that it’s too bright and actually starting to overpower the key.
Although I moved the background light back in, I missed the spot, and now have tones merging where his dark hair meets the background shadow. However, to add a little visual strength to the shadow side, I added a 1x2-inch reflector card. It catches just a little of the narrow beam lighting his face. I set the angle of reflectance to match the angle of incidence, and bounced just a little kicker off the side of his face.
For the final image I raised the background light to about 7 feet high, spreading the light to go behind both shoulders. To cut the light on his arms and put the emphasis to his face, I slipped a flag (a small piece of black cardboard mounted on a stand) under the key. It was at a diagonal, to throw more of a shadow over his camera-left arm than the other.
Text and images © Christopher Grey.
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