How to create low key Rembrandt light portraits in the studio

Sep 22, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to create low key Rembrandt light portraits in the studio

Sep 22, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Rembrandt had a wonderful way of simulating light in his paintings. So much so, that there’s a whole photography lighting technique named after him. Not surprisingly, Rembrandt lighting. It’s characterised by a small triangle of light under the subject’s eye on the shadow side of the face. It’s typical of how Rembrandt painted his subjects.

This video from Jay P Morgan shows us how we can get a Rembrandt style lighting setup in a low key portrait. With the help of a couple of young ladies, a pomeranian and a chicken, we see how the shot is built up to provide a classic look with a modern twist.

YouTube video

I’m a big fan of low key shots on a studio set like this. Or out in the real world on location and indoor environmental situations. It’s a nice moody and dramatic look with lots of subtle tones and saturation.

Lighting aside, though, one of the really cool things early on in this video is the DIY background. Painted a solid blue, left to dry, and then painted on top with grey using a broom as a paintbrush! Great big streaks that look fantastic in the background. A very cool idea for creating something a little painterly, custom and unique with some depth.

Backgrounds like these are great for low key photography. Low key images have darker tones, lots of shadows, a pretty high level of contrast, and give a sense of drama or tension. There’s a lot of fine control needed with low key setups to get the light just where you want it.

It’s a common misconception that low key lighting requires fewer lights. I typically find that it tends to require more. This is why I have an army of speedlights to pop a little light into dark areas of a scene. For this setup, Jay used four lights.

The octabox, technically, is the key light, but the Dynalite pack and head was added to the left side to help throw a little more light on the subject camera right. With one subject being in a white outfit, and the other in black, it helps to balance things out to get a good exposure. The two lights at the back help to provide a subtle hair & rim light to both subjects.

The back lighting is a little strong for my tastes. For me it creates too many odd shadows projecting forward toward the camera. But the ladies look great. It’s a good classic look, with a bit of a modern twist. As well as a bit of a strange twist – I don’t remember Rembrandt including chickens in the portraits he painted.

Jay also did a couple of individual portraits with each of his subjects to show how this setup works with just a lone subject.

Low key isn’t a look that every photographer likes. Nor is it suitable for every type of subject. But I love it.

Even if it’s not something you plan to shoot often, it’s worth experimenting with. The kind of control you need and can get with low key lighting can teach you a lot about how light works.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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