Rembrandt lighting with one flash


As I wanted to experiment with the Nikon SB700 off-camera a bit, I decided to do a small photo-shoot. I started reading a bit about lighting with an off-camera flash, and discovered that a lot of articles on the web about portrait lighting are about studio setups and multiple light sources. Of course, this can lead to the best results in a photo-shoot, but as I only have one flash light I wanted to see what is possible to do with just that and I ended up trying Rembrandt lighting.

The name Rembrandt lighting comes from the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, who used this kind of lighting very often in his paintings. Rembrandt lighting can be characterized by a small inverted triangle of light on the subject’s cheek that is opposite the light source (as to be seen in the self-portrait of Rembrandt from the year 1660 below).


In photography, this kind of lighting is used very often and is considered one of the five basic lighting setups for portrait photography. Rembrandt lighting can be achieved using a light source positioned in approximately a 45-degree offset from the subject (which is slightly turned away from the light source) and a bit higher than the eye level. Doing this, the light lights one side of the subject’s face and drops shadows on the opposite side, creating the characteristic inverted triangle there. This creates a very natural portrait,  with a bit of a darker feel to it.


The setup I used can be seen below. I used the Nikon SB700 on a tripod in a 45-degree angle and the Nikon D7100 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 with the built-in flash on commander mode only. As I don’t have a studio backdrop to create a dark background, I used a wooden cupboard as background instead.


It took some time to get the flash settings and exposure right. I played with the flash power, the diffusor, zoom head position and illumination pattern. I even ended up trying my LED Lenser flash light (which I keep in my photo bag for urbexing) with a diffuser as fill light from the opposite side of the flash light, but that made the shadows on the subject’s face too weak, so I just used natural light (although it was already dawn) coming from the window there.


The photo below is the one I think came out the best (at 1/60, f/2.8, ISO200, 52mm). I think that, with a proper fill light (which can be natural light of course, but a bit brighter than the light of dawn) or a reflector, it could have been a bit better by making the edges of the shadows a bit softer, but at least it is not too bad for a first try.


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