Portrait photographer Richard Wood walks us through how to emulate the soft, moody lighting of the masters — with just a window
‘Rembrandt lighting’ is a broad term given to an image lit with a key light from the side. Most commonly, it’s constructed by way of a single light source placed approximately 45 degrees offset from the subject and a bit higher than eye level, which illuminates a triangle under the subject’s eye on the side of the face that is farthest from the camera. While I’ve seen textbook formulas of exact ratios and angles of studio light set-ups, I prefer to stray from these. I have no problem in moving away from these precise formulas, as they’re simply the recommendations of someone who has done this before. It could easily be taken as gospel, and all too often we become scientists more than we are creatives, which strangles our potential. Personally, I view the term ‘Rembrandt’ as a broad concept where light comes into the image from one side, much like it appears to in the work of its namesake, the 17th-century Dutch painter. The style in which Rembrandt worked was known as chiaroscuro, where a three-dimensional quality was created through detailed gradients of extreme tone variations, from shadow to light. Rembrandt wasn’t, of course, the only artist to practise this technique, but the name stuck — possibly for the idiosyncratic triangle of light on the subject’s face, which photographers often aim to achieve. There are endless variations of lighting techniques that will recreate this aesthetic, and it’s easy to create images that appear both natural and compelling with minimal equipment. Rembrandt, for one, had no flashy studio strobes, reflectors, soft boxes, or beauty dishes — more often than not, he probably just had a window. While a window sounds simple, there are a couple of key points that will ensure a successful exercise in portraiture.
THE DIFFUSION OF LIGHT As we are working with available natural light, we should take a look at our options. If we have a soft, overcast day outside, we have a greater chance of obtaining that beautiful soft light over the face. A harsh, sunny day is going to create exactly that — a harsh, strong light across our subject’s face. However, we can sometimes outsmart the weather by choosing a window on the side of the building that is facing away from the sun or by placing some diffusion over the window, such as a netted curtain or a scrim from the outside.
THE STRENGTH OF LIGHT In the studio, we set ratios with a main light and a key light; that is, setting the different strengths of light for both our highlights and shadows. When using available light, however, we’re not always as flexible, as our environment has to be taken into consideration. The greater the the strength of light coming into the room in comparison with the ambient light in a room, the more contrast we will achieve (more mood). Conversely, when the light coming into a room is not much greater than the ambient light inside, the contrast and mood will lighten. A large window will allow a lot of light into the room, making the inside light closer to what it is outside, while a smaller window will allow a smaller amount of light into the space, thus not lighting the room up so much — and lending a higher level of contrast in your image. While a light source that is large in comparison to our subject is most likely to achieve a softer effect, it can also result in a room that is filled
with light. To lessen the effect of this, we sometimes have to play with how far from the window we place our subject. The closer our subject is to the light source, the larger the light source becomes in relation to them. This will also increase the contrast between your highlights created by the window light and the darks of the room. Alternatively, the further a subject is placed from the window, the more the light diffuses and becomes closer to that of the ambient light of the room, thus lessening the effect of our contrast.
THE GOLD NUGGET When teaching students, there’s a particular technique that I often call the ‘Gold Nugget’. I call it this because I feel that, once learnt, it can really change the way someone works with light. The technique is commonly referred to by photographers as ‘feathering’. I use this with both studio lighting and natural light, and, judging by the beautiful softness that Rembrandt achieved, it’s evident that he also made the most of the light available to him. All too often, I see photographers pointing their modifiers right at their subjects (position A in the diagram on the facing page). When I do this myself, I often find the light far too harsh for my style of work, even with the largest of soft boxes. Instead, more often than not, I use the ambient light coming from my modifier or window. Just shifting the subject out of direct light can give the work a very different quality (position B).