‘Rembrandt Lighting’ In Photography

‘Rembrandt’ or ‘chiaroscuro’ lighting accentuates the focal point of the composition by bathing it in light and surrounding the focal point by darker recesses. The Italian word ‘chiaroscuro’ means light and dark, and the alternative name of ‘Rembrandt’ lighting comes from the fact that he created that lighting effect in a lot of his paintings and may be the finest artist to have used the technique.

The contrast between light and dark areas also accentuates the three-dimensional appearance of the subject.

chiaroscuro or Rembrant lighting on a pear
Chiaroscuro or 'Rembrandt' Lighting On A Pear

In photography the chiaroscuro lighting effect is straightforward to achieve with window light, because window light is directional. In the northern hemisphere the ideal window is one that faces north, away from the direction of the sun, because the light is less contrasty.

But if the subject is placed very near the window, the light fall-off may be too rapid because light always falls off most rapidly nearest the light source and there is a dramatic decrease in the intensity of the light with each step back into the shadows.

Whereas if the subject is placed well into the room, say twenty feet from the window, and is then moved another foot further away from the window, the fall off of light caused by moving that small extra distance from the light source isn’t great because the light has already spent its power penetrating that first twenty feet.

While placing a subject close to a light source can be very atmospheric, it may be too much for the film or camera sensor to deal with. And yet there may be too little contrast and too little light if the subject is placed deeper into the room.

A common way to overcome this problem is to place the subject near the window and use a reflector to bounce light back into its darker side and so reduce the contrast across it.

But that’s not all that Rembrandt lighting is, because he used it to color the scene to create mood. And I thought of that when I looked at the image of young piglets under the heat lamp at a local farm. It was very dark in the shed and although I propped my elbows on the side of the stall, I knew the shot would probably be blurred and therefore useless to make a large print, but at this size it doesn’t show too much and the lighting on the piglets in the half shadow reminds me of how chiaroscuro lighting was used to mould the human body in classical compositions.

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  1. Aris Skarpetis says

    Hey David,

    I have been trying to take some photos of linen cushions in chiaroscuro for my wife’s website and your article has been the most insightful especially with your explanation of window position as well as positioning the subject deeper into the room to help your camera sensor cope. BTW Lovely pear you got going there!

    I had a couple of questions that I would really appreciate if you found time to answer.

    1. do better/more expensive cameras under this lighting setup give you better detail inside dark shadows? I have a Pentax K100D Super (kit lens 18-55mm) and I am not so confident that its colour gradates as well between light/dark.

    2. I understand that different lenses can give you a sharper image but can they also give you smoother colour gradation or is that strictly a property of the camera?

    Maybe, if you remembered what camera/lens you used to take this photo it would also help me.

    I hope what I asked made some sense but I am trying to work out weather to get a newer camera with a kit lens or a better lens for my circa 2006 6MP camera!


    • says

      Hi Aris,
      I have never shot with the camera you are using, but I looked at the review on DPReview, so I have a fair idea of its capabilities.

      It seems to be a good camera, and absolutely good enough for what you describe.

      I’ll happily give you more information to help you, but let’s start with a question. Do you shoot RAW or JPEG?

      • Aris Skarpetis says

        Hey David,

        Thanks for your reply. For this project I am shooting RAW. So far I bring the PEF files into Photoshop via Camera Raw as 16 bit Adobe RGB in case I need to adjust further. I have the option to use Lightroom which I probably will when I have all the shots I need.

        Here is some additional info:
        – the camera LCD preview rarely matches what comes in as RAW. generally what comes in is seems very dark and needs adjusting.
        – my lens needs to be at f8 or more closed to get an image with sharp enough detail. at f4.5 it almost has double vision even at the very centre especially on macro shots.
        – i always shoot with the supplied petal lens hood.

        PS. I am one of those bad students who has done quite a bit of reading but has no experience with real life challenging photography situations. This month my wife and I have to match our images to our taste. Testing what I know about photography and finding out what I need to learn through doing it. A challenge indeed but a welcome one!

        • says

          Thank you for the extra information. To go back to your original questions, you were said you were not so confident that its colour gradates as well as you want between light/dark.

          I wonder whether you are seeing is posterization, which is what happens when colours – particularly expanses of the same colour or similar colours – start to break up into bands. So my next question is, how do you save images for the web?

          Could you direct me to one of your images on the web?

  2. Aris Skarpetis says

    Hey David,

    I fixed it! I built a small room out of black fabric around the frosted window and the chiaroscuro effect is now working with virtually no processing. Even though I was using a black divider in the room originally, my problems were:
    1- white ceiling
    2- reflected light from the other (4) windows via the ceiling and other walls even though it has been overcast all these days (Northern France, winter and snow)
    3- reflected light from the ceiling above the main window, which is ceiling high
    4- the picture frame was not completely filled with black fabric background with some corners showing bits of white bench

    All of the above resulted in the camera not letting me underexpose the shadows enough. Even a small amount of white area in the background would throw the camera processing off. Now, everything I photograph in the black room just works! Before I would be trying to bring up the highlights or darken the shadows during RAW processing and my shadows would get somewhat ugly and not as smooth (no banding but ugly) and the whole picture would have this wet hell-hound look. I also bought some white fleece (a thin non-woven white fabric normally used to cover plants against frost) of which I used to layers cover the window to manage the amount of light from it so I can control the size of the “scuro” shadows.

    My lesson? For full control, make sure there is only one window in the room, minimise light reflections from the ceiling and other white objects in the room. I also need to add that my stage size is 1.2 x 1.2 m and about 0.6m high which is a little big but a good size for still life scenes.

    When the photos are all up, I will send you a link to my wife’s website so you can see how it all went. Quite happy so far!

    Thanks for offering to help David.


    • says

      Glad you have the answer. On a similar track, I often shoot by the light of a window. In the LCD on the back of the camera I can see the gradation from light to dark across the frame. I tell myself it looks OK – but when I look at the image on the screen, I know I should have controlled the lighting more in the beginning.

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