Rembrandt Lighting

What is the difference between a snapshot and a masterpiece in photography? This is a question that is often asked but is often already answered. Even though some opinions may differ, there is one very correct statement: It is all about the light.

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Rico Besserdich is a widely published German photographer, journalist and artist based in Izmir, Turkey.

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Master the light and you will master photography. Indeed, “drawing with light” is the meaning of the Greek origin of the word “photography.”

However, if we want to work creatively with light, we need to think about shadows as well. The good news is that we do not need to start from scratch. The old masters of art and painting developed specific lighting techniques hundreds of years before the first camera was even invented.

One of them was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the great Dutch artist who is known all over the world by his first name, Rembrandt. Rembrandt (1606-1669) was a draughtsman, painter and printmaker, and is considered one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Baroque Era. He is well remembered for his dramatic use of light and shadow, his versatility, and most importantly, for his portrait paintings. He was a true master of chiaroscuro, the artistic technique using light and dark values to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface, which is often represented in very strong contrasts.

Rembrandt’s legacy for image-makers (including photographers, of course) is the simple but unique lighting technique that carries the master’s name—Rembrandt lighting.

Light sources and angles

Its most common use is in portrait photography. It creates dramatic, high-contrast portraits, and was often used in a lot of old black-and-white Hollywood portraits. Instead of “flattening” a portrait by using several light sources (key light, fill light, hair light, background light and so on) from different directions (just think of commercial shots from the cosmetic industry), Rembrandt lighting works in its most basic form with just one light source.

In portrait photography, two characteristics define classic Rembrandt lighting. Firstly, there is light on one half of the subject’s face; and secondly, there is a triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face.

At its most basic level, this lighting technique can be realized with a single light source offset approximately 45 degrees from the subject and a bit higher than eye level (please see graphic). The angle from which you take your photograph is not that important. What is important is the angle of the light source.

Furthermore, it is not that important whether your light source comes from the right or from the left. However, in the majority of Rembrandt’s own works (especially the portraits), the light comes from the left side.

Creating visual impact

Now the question is, what does all this have to do with underwater photography? The answer is, Rembrandt lighting can add quite some drama, depth and dimensionality to underwater photographs. It works well with medium-size subjects, such as fish or corals, and any subject matter in macro photography.

The idea is to utilize shadows to create some more drama and visual impact.

Many underwater photographers tend to work with two (underwater) strobes to light up as much of the scene or subject as possible. This indeed brings back colors and detail, but it also often flattens the image, making it look two-dimensional, especially when both strobes are on the same power output setting, or even operating in TTL mode. This interpretation of “painting with light” might not deliver a result that differs from a snapshot. “The image is flashed to death,” as critics would say.

In contrast with topside photography, it may sometimes seem like shadows are undesirable in underwater photography. But in the areas of the scene not touched by light, it often makes a difference in the visual impact of photographs. Shadows (in images) add dimension, and thus, make them look more interesting and simply livelier. And this is where Rembrandt lighting comes in handy.

Don’t worry, it is not the end of the world if the special “Rembrandt triangle” (a triangle-shaped area of light in the darker area of the image) is missed in your attempts to utilize this lighting technique in your underwater photography, as the creation of that triangle requires something that rarely can be found underwater: a nose.

This kind of lighting technique is absolutely not limited to fish (portraits) alone. The good news is that it requires only a very basic setup:

  • A camera (plus underwater housing)
  • An underwater strobe (or torch)
  • Strobe arms (two segments with a total length of about 45cm is recommended)

The strobe arms are necessary to adjust the angle of the strobe (or torch). When pointed at the subject (from the side), the strobe or torch should be angled at around 45 degrees. Built-in camera strobes are not suitable for this lighting technique, as we cannot achieve a 45-degree angle with them.

In case you always prefer to do your underwater photo dives with two strobes attached to your camera housing, just switch one strobe off. You can use your second strobe (in manual mode, on very low power) as a fill light to give a few more details to the shadows, softening the contrast. This then becomes a slightly more advanced setup for Rembrandt lighting. However, a second light source or a reflector is not absolutely necessary.

In general, Rembrandt lighting is best used in low-key photography, as this is a necessary element in creating a chiaroscuro effect. This means we get into the dark. More shadows and darker areas in the image guide the viewer’s eye almost automatically to the areas that are lit by the technique of Master Rembrandt—in other words, dark and dramatic. We still “paint with light,” but not the entire (image) frame.

To achieve maximum control over the lighting when working with a strobe or torch, it is of great help to eliminate all, or at least most, of the ambient light coming from the sun. The most classic way of doing this is to set the aperture to higher numbers such as F/16 or even higher (depending on the light circumstances). This then keeps most of the sunlight out and allows us to work entirely with the light of the strobe.

Often, this does not work well during dives under the midday sun or in shallow water, as the sunlight is simply too strong. Very early morning, late afternoon, or early evening (and, of course, at night) are often better choices when creating shots with Rembrandt lighting.

Give it a try—paint with light, play with shadows, be chiaroscuro, be dramatic.

As a matter of fact, many lighting techniques in photography have their roots in the paintings of the old masters. Taking a closer look at the old masters’ artworks can provide lots of inspiration and ideas, not least for underwater photography. There is still so much more to discover.

Styles arise and disappear, or simply go out of fashion. Rembrandt himself saw his paintings lose popularity during his last years. At the age of 50, he had to file for bankruptcy. Fashion, however, does not really matter to an artist. Rembrandt is now universally considered one of the greatest painters who ever lived, and his unique way of “drawing with light” has become the gold standard, with which every image-maker simply has to be familiar.