*A photographic study in light, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Style!

** Self Portrait – Rembrandt – 1629

(*Blog authors note: Hi, I’ve been seeing a lot of traffic from google searches to this article.  I’d love to hear from those readers about if and how the following article is helping them! thanks and I hope you enjoy – Tyson)

Many art forms mimic the artistic mediums that came before it.  Portrait photography is a way to paint a subject with light and has always been very influenced by the previous predominant form of portrait art, painting.  One master painter that is studied by photographers for his use of light, shadow and impeccable chiaroscuro shading techniques is Rembrandt. …Dude knew his light.

Another self portrait from later on in Rembrandt’s life.

** Self Portrait – Rembrandt – 1660

His directional depiction of light on his subjects helped him create a signature style.   A style that is commonly utilized in portrait photography and a pretty easy one to replicate with decent results.  Notice the direction of the light source in the portraits above.  It is coming from the viewers left and from an angle that is unable to fully illuminate the left (Rembrandt’s left) side of his face.  He’s also shown this in the reflection in the collar of his earlier self portrait.  His paintings would regularly use this hard side light to great and dramatic effect.  Another element to notice is the way that the light hits his left cheek.  Because his nose obscures the light source, it creates an inverted triangle with the light falling off to accentuate the curves and contours in his face.  This would have us guess that the light was coming from about a 45-60 degree angle away from the viewer on the left. He would employ this directional light to accurately depict dimension in his paintings whether they were portraits, or larger scale scenes like his famous painting, “The Night Watch”.

** Nightwatch – Rembrandt – 1642

The Night Watch is one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings.  I’ve been lucky enough to view this painting in its home at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  It is HUGE.  The figures in the foreground are larger than a life sized human, and the painting itself could occupy the side of a two story house.  A small, low resolution image file does not get close to doing this painting justice.  I would highly suggest, if you are ever in that corner of the world to spend a day in the museum and a fair bit of time with this painting.

Okay, on to our application.  We will walk through a simple set up and I will show you a quick and easy way to use this type of directional light to create moody and contrasty portraits.  Firstly I will say, I am going to use this blog to help motivate me into documenting our newly burgeoning family, and seeing as I don’t want to pay for models, you will be stuck with my mug more often than not with the occasional wife and baby shot sprinkled around.  That said, the first shot I set up and took in less than a minute.  Easy breezy.  I used a simple work light that I bought from my local home improvement store, you know the type with a silver dish and spring clamp that uses a standard household bulb.  I think I bought a two pack and it ran me less than $10.  What I am saying, is you can use any old light.  For this purpose though I found it easier with a light source that could be directionally adjusted.  I placed the light at roughly a 40 degree angle from me and placed it just above head height.  Here is the “set up” shot followed by the result.

Not a beautiful picture, the light source is very hard and the light falloff on my face is quick and dirty, but an example that gets our point across.  Now, if you wanted to “fancy” up this shot, you could very easily get a reflector (or large white piece of paper or foamcore) and put that behind me and off to the side opposite the light to reflect a little light on my dark side opening up the shadows a little bit.  Eh, for a 1 minute set up it will have to do.

Next, I tried a bit more of a technical approach and the little guy, decked out as a Treble Maker this afternoon, helped me on this one.  I brought out a couple bigger strobes, one in a softbox and the other above me through a grid (which for those who don’t yet speak photo-nese a grid is a honeycomb-like apparatus that controls the spill of the light into a “beam” more or less) to give my head a bit more dimension by separating it from the background.  Again, the set up drawing followed by the shot.

In this shot, notice the angle of the softbox.  Because the softbox creates a soft, wrapping light, if I were to point it directly at me I would have lost the nose shadow, so I “feathered” the light so that I caught the edge of it.  The light in this shot is not as harsh and it falls off much more gradually, kind of similar by comparison to the two self portrait paintings above, the latter of the two showing a much more gradual shift from the bright highlights to the shadows.

So there you have it.  Pretty easy stuff with fun results.  Using it as a jumping off point and adding a rim light hitting from behind, or background light could add even more depth.  Have at it!

**The paintings depicted above are © and property of the Estate of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, or their respective owners, and used here with intention by the author for personal study and educational purposes only.  No other use is permitted.


17 thoughts on “*A photographic study in light, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Style!

  1. I’m starting to study different kinds of lighting. Thank you for setting up this demonstration/experiment. I’m going to be doing this kind of artistic exploration myself. Seeing the difference between the two kinds of lights was helpful too!


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  8. Dear Tyson,
    I was drawn to your blog by the GX7/OMD EM5 review. I’ve have been
    wanting to get the Lumix 7-14mm lens for some time (…$…$$….$$$..)
    when I suddenly learned that it doesn’t have OIS! So I now I’m thinking
    I need to get IBIS. I also love using legacy lenses, so I can further rationalize
    the extra grand investment. Your work is most appreciated in this regard.

    I then went on to look at other areas of your blog and was most gratified
    to find your “Masters” series. When I’m out shooting, I cannot help but
    feel drawn to tableaux that are inspired by the Masters. Their legacy is
    the gift that keeps on giving.

    Finally, I know I will be returning to your blog because the content is so
    good, and you write so well. Really, really well. Early on in my college
    days I read that when you ask someone to read something you’ve
    written, you’re asking them to work for you, so don’t make them work
    too hard. Reading your stuff is like swimming with the current. Exhilarating.


    • Hello Roger,

      Thank you very much. I’ve always enjoyed writing and while I do provide my wife (who worked in editing and publishing pre-kiddos) with a few headaches here and there with my rambling, it helps justify the time spent with sentiment like this, so truly, thank you.

      Okay, onto the nuts and bolts. I won’t lie, I appreciate stabilization whether that be optical or camera based and feel that it is at a point where there is very little reason to omit it nowadays. Panasonic originally took the Nikanon approach, opting for the optical flavor. Truth be told, I feel it is the more effective way to stabilize as it is designed specifically for the lens being used, but then it basically requires the redesign of the stabilizer for each lens. The in body stabilization that has become more common over the last 5 years or so (in system cameras anyway) is kind of a lowest common denominator so to speak, but with the Oly 5 axis, that common denominator pushed up quite a bit. That the GX7 IBIS can situationally exceed the performance of that 5 axis IBIS is certainly something, and while I really miss the stabilized live view from the Oly, I don’t miss the end result much if at all. Now, all this said, with Panasonic having introduced the IBIS into the GX7, I feel they need to add it to all future cameras period. It works well, and is disabled when a lens with OIS is fixed onto the camera, so you’re covered in any situation (minus video unfortunately at this point in time). With the Oly system you can choose to disable the IBIS for OIS (which I found to normally be beneficial as the OIS out performed the IBIS in most cases) but you’d lose the stabilized live view. Good problems to have to “deal with” so to speak.

      All said and done, stabilization is relatively new, photographically speaking where we used to need to employ a tripod or the like to battle hand shake. With ultra wide angle lenses, I do feel that stabilization is largely unnecessary as movement is much more easily handled with such a wide angle of view. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations where stabilization can help though too. My argument against optically stabilized ultra wides has always been the cost to benefit. How necessary is it, and what is the extra cost involved? Weight, price, etc. With an in body stabilization, that can eliminate that argument, and with it becoming much more common, AND the fact that we know Panasonic is willing to put IBIS into their cameras, I see it as a necessary feature now, because why not?

      Thank you again Roger, and I’m thrilled that you’ve found any value in what I do. It truly means a lot to me.




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