Compelling Headshots

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Image: low key portrait of client Colin Dowse using Rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt lighting is a recognised studio portrait set up which, as the name suggests, has been around a long time. For some savvy photographers, film-makers and marketing people it is a key factor in fabricating natural and compelling expressive images.

Not only has the use of Rembrandt lighting in high profile marketing and advertising never gone away, it’s enjoying a resurgence at the moment. I often get asked to create low key portraits for clients and although it doesn’t suit everyone the results can look rather effective.

Rembrandt lighting was successfully employed by the holy trinity of photographers in the 60’s, namely David Bailey and fellow East Enders Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. It’s also been employed in cinematography but sadly many films, and in particular those mostly awful flicks from the States, are all too often over-bathed in light rendering an un-natural, clinical, bland effect devoid of light and shade.

DIY tip: The key in true Rembrandt lighting is creating the triangle or diamond shape of light underneath the eye. One side of the face is lit well from the main light source while the other side of the face uses the interaction of shadows and light, also known as chiaroscuro*, to create this geometric form on the face.

The triangle should be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye. This technique may be achieved subtly or very dramatically by altering the distance between subject and lights and relative strengths of main land fill lights.

The key light is placed high and to one side at the front, and the fill-in light or reflector is placed half-height on the other side at the front, set to about one third the power of the key light, with the key light illuminating the triangle on the far side of the face.

* The word chiaroscuro is Italian for light and shadow. It’s one of the classic techniques used in the works of artists like Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Caravaggio. It refers to the use of light and shadow to create the illusion of light from a specific source shining on the figures and objects in the painting.

Richard Bishop | Employ the Right Photographer