6 min read

Rembrandt Lighting: What it is and Why You Should Use it

6 min read

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girl with rembrandt lighting on her face

Rembrandt lighting is one of the most famous techniques for shooting portraits. Many photographers have mastered this type of lighting and in just a few easy steps you can too. Read more to learn what type of lighting setup you will need to create this dramatic lighting for portrait photography.

What is Rembrandt Lighting?

When you think of Rembrandt lighting, remember the term Chiaroscuro. This term literally means light-dark, and when applying it to photography, it means you are trying to create contrast between the light and dark areas of your photo. This is exactly what Rembrandt lighting does.

Rembrandt lighting was created by the famous painter Rembrandt who often used it in his art. But in today’s digital world photographers have mastered creating this same effect with a single light source when photographing a portrait.

The idea is to create an inverted triangle or “Rembrandt triangle” of light on the shadowed side of your subject’s face. The triangle of light should be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye. The light should be on the side of the face furthest from the camera to create true Rembrandt lighting.

Why Use Rembrandt Lighting?

example of rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt triangle lighting has been used in Hollywood for a long time. But the original Dutch master created it in the 17th century.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a printmaker and painter. He was easily one of the greatest portrait artists in history and this is why the technique was named after him. We have just adjusted the Rembrandt lighting techniques from painting to photographing portrait photography.

Rembrandt lighting is used to create a mysterious or moody portrait. The viewer’s attention should be drawn to the triangle of light on the subject’s cheek.

Typically this lighting was used for portrait subjects with round or full faces because it creates a slimming effect. Some Rembrandt lighting experts define this lighting setup as masculine and one that shouldn’t be used on women. However, you will notice in today’s world it is used on men and women and can be a valuable skill when mastering a single key light source.

Rembrandt Lighting Setup

YouTube video

The chiaroscuro style lighting can easily be created without a studio and it is usually one of the first techniques learned by photographers in portraiture lighting. If you do not have a studio, you should wait for the evening when the lighting conditions are darker. If you have a studio, you do not have to work around daytime constraints.

The most basic Rembrandt lighting setup consists of a single light source. Place your light at a 45-degree angle to your subject. Put the lighting a little higher than the eye level of your model and at a downward angle.

Place your model directly in front of the camera and facing the lighting source. This single light source will create a very harsh and defined look on your model’s face. This is why it’s better to have the rest of your subject dimly lit to make the Rembrandt triangle more pronounced and created the chiaroscuro exaggeration of light.

girl rembrandt lighting setup

Your key light should be on the side of the face further away from the camera. Lighting setups vary a lot of course. Some photographers like to add reflectors and other strobes to achieve the Rembrandt lighting look easily. But at its core, all you need is one light source to create the Rembrandt triangle.

Make sure your light is off-camera as well, you should not have your flash connected to the top of your camera. You will want to use a light stand or some sort of mount to face your lighting towards your subject.

Useful Tips for Rembrandt Lights

  1. Make sure your Rembrandt triangle is not larger than the eye and will not “break” the shadow from the subject’s nose. The triangle should not extend below the nose of your portrait subject.
  2. Use masking tape to mark the best setup positions. One for where your model will sit, one for your camera, and one for your lighting setup.
  3. When trying to achieve a Rembrandt lighting look you need to avoid umbrellas or filters. The purpose is for one side of the face to draw the viewer’s eye in.
  4. If using a natural light source as your key light then use a reflector to help guide your light triangle.

Products to Help you Achieve Better Rembrandt Light

camera setup with one flash

Flash: Any flash will do whether you are a Nikon or Canon shooter, the key to creating a Rembrandt lighting style is to use that one light to form a triangle of light on the side of the subject’s face furthest away from the camera. You will also want it to be trigger activated.

Light Stand: Since you need to place your flash off-camera and at a 45-degree angle, it’s important that you have a sturdy stand to place your light source on.

Reflector: If you want to control your light better or create more ambient light then a reflector will make for a cheap addition to your setup.


Rembrandt lighting is a simple and classic photography technique that is easy to master. Once you have created the perfect Rembrandt setup and snapped a few photos of your model, don’t forget to spend some time editing.

Most photographers are satisfied with using Lightroom for post-processing, we recommend considering one of our affordable Lightroom presets to add even more contrast to your photos. You can make your shadows pop and remove blemishes all in one click.

We recommend adjusting your highlights and blacks first until you achieve the amount of moodiness you want in the photo. This is where you get to play the artist and adjust to your liking, there is no right answer here.

Summary of Rembrandt Lighting

one flash rembrandt light setup

Rembrandt lighting is one of the easiest lighting setups to master for photographers of any level. We recommend it as a starting point when you are beginning to study studio portraiture lighting. Even if this style is dating back to the 17th-century, it is still very relevant and widely used today.

Rembrandt lighting will work with models of all genders and pops, even more, when you convert your photos to black and white. Rembrandt lighting is cost-effective, flattering, and possible to achieve with a single flash or even using a homemade reflector and the sun!

rembrandt girl lighting

Don’t forget these key factors when setting up:

  1. Mark positions for your model, camera, and light source with tape.
  2. Sit your model down for an easier lighting setup.
  3. Your model should be directly in front of your camera about 5 feet away.
  4. Place your light on the side of your camera on a light stand and angle it at a 45-degrees above your model and downward.
  5. Continue to move your light until a triangle of light is visible under the model’s eye on the side of their face furthest away from the camera.
  6. Make sure the triangle is not larger than the model’s eye or longer than their nose.

Remember natural lighting isn’t easy to manipulate so we recommend using a flash instead. Also, if shooting from home instead of a studio, try to find a room with a minimum number of windows to make your life easier.

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Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.
Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.

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