Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography
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Continuing my previous post showcasing the photo shoot I did with my brother, here I wanted to share some more details on the lighting I used to create some of these portraits. I opted for a style of lighting called "Rembrandt Lighting" because I've always loved the deep, soft-edged shadows it creates. When used in the right way, Rembrandt lighting makes for some excellent depth and drama in portrait photography. Granted, this light probably isn't ideal for the fun family portrait to hang over the fireplace, but in these shots, it worked quite well.

Rembrandt lighting gets its name from the works of the 17th-century painter Rembrandt. His painted portraits often utilized a light that appears to originate from a large source - like a big window - at the extreme side of the model. The light was soft and the shadows dark with little to no fill-light on the shadowed side. The trademark look of Rembrandt lighting is when the shadow of the nose and cheek creates a little upside-down triangle of light on the model's cheek opposite the light source.

Take a look at the picture below. Notice that triangle of light on the model's left cheek (your right). That's Rembrandt lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

So how to do you find Rembrandt lighting? Simple. You just need a big light source to one side of your model and a dark, unlit room or shadow to the opposite side. Put someone next to a sliding glass door in an otherwise darkened room, then photograph them with the door to their right or left. All of the sunlight outside bouncing off the landscape will pour in through the door as a big, soft glow. You don't want sunlight shooting directly in through the door, just let the light bounce off the trees and sidewalk and grass and sky and everything else beyond the door. But the photos you see here were not taken next to a sliding glass door, so let me dissect the light on this series of shots.

For the photos you see here with the concrete background and floor, we were in the shade of a storm drain. No joke. Just a dirty old storm drain. It was one of those rectangular drainage tunnels about as tall and wide as a 2-car garage. You could easily drive 2 cars down it side-by-side. We went right to the edge of the storm drain where the ceiling of it terminated and opened up to daylight. This is where I found Rembrandt lighting - under the shadow of this dark tunnel, but just at the edge of it where sunlight bouncing off the environment poured a few yards in to the cavernous space.

This is where you find good light: the edge of shadow. What I mean by that is you put your model in a shadow, but get right up to the edge of the shadow where it just starts to meet the sunlight. The sunlight bouncing off the environment outside the shadow will pour light into the shadow itself as a beautiful gentle glow.

When you think of a shadow, you probably think of a lack of light. But shadows are not a lack of light. There must be light in a shadow, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see anything in a shadow. The light in shadow is coming from light bouncing off of buildings and trees and clouds and sidewalks and the sky itself. So when you're in full shadow, like we were under the shelter of this storm drain, the light source is actually the environment out there in the sunlight. Standing indoors next to a sliding glass door or a big window achieves a similar effect. The environment itself illuminates with the sunlight and that light bounces into the shadow.

When it comes to light, the bigger the light source is, the softer the light is and the fuzzier the edges are on the resulting shadows. When the whole environment to your left (in this case) is the light source, you have a huge light source to work with. Thus the light is soft and, for portraits like this, very flattering.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

For the photos in this series below done out in the open where you can see the sky, I used the setting sun to illuminate my subject. The sun itself is not small but relative to us it's no bigger than a quarter held at arm's length. That makes it a small light source which, accordingly, creates harder-edged shadows. But you'll notice in these photos that the shadows are nearly nonexistent, which indicates that the light source is very large. Well, if you wait long enough, the sun will drop so low on the horizon that its intensity about evens out with the sky around it. Basically, the air stretching out to the sides of the sun and a little bit above it illuminate like fog in headlights. When this band of air illuminates under the light of the setting sun, it creates what is called the "twilight arch." This illuminated air - this twilight arch - acts as a light source in and of itself, making the shadows just a bit softer than in the middle of the day when the twilight arch is absent and the source of light is much smaller.

If you wait until the sun is below the horizon, the light source becomes the sky itself. This light source is huge, and so the shadows virtually disappear after sunset. In fact, if you look at the series of shots below, you'll see that the first photo shows some relatively sharp shadows on my brother's face. This is because the sun wasn't that low on the horizon yet, and thus the light source was relatively small. Then, as the sun dropped lower for the next 4 photos, the twilight arch started to glow, creating a bigger, softer light source, bringing with it the attendant softer-edged shadows.

So size does least when it comes to good lighting for portraits.

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

All of the photos featured here were made on Kodak Portra 160 film using a 6x7 medium format camera (Mamiya RZ67 with a 110mm f/2.8 lens). I was switching back and forth between medium format film and 35mm film using a Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens throughout this shoot because I wanted to compare the shooting technique and the overall look between the two formats. Upon reviewing the shots, I quickly came to the conclusion that I prefer the medium format. The resolution is unreal and the 110mm lens at f/2.8 created the perfect depth of field and compression. I also enjoyed shooting with this camera a lot more. Since I had far fewer frames to burn, I was much more careful and deliberate with my shots. I hate feeling sloppy, and that I wasn't on the medium format.

Photography Tips: Bug’s View

Skill Level: Intermediate

I think flowers are probably one of the most photographed subjects on this planet. They're beautiful, they're interesting, they're colorful and, most importantly, they are cooperative - they never get bored of posing and they never complain that you made them look fat.

But because these beautiful plants are so often photographed, it can be really difficult to get an original shot. Most flower photos end up looking about the same when you really break them down. That's why when I go to shoot flowers, I try to do everything but my first approach. Whatever my first inclination is in framing, composition or angle, I try to do something else. That's what led me to today's tip.

Next time you're out shooting some flowers, leave your macro lens in the bag and strap on your wide angle. With a wide angle lens and a really low point of view, you can get this really great effect of looking up towards the sky from beneath the flowers that makes you feel as if you are viewing the world through a bug's eye. Here's an example demonstrating this technique:

Not your average flower shot, eh?

It's quite simple to get this effect, but there are a few things you need to pay attention to in order to get the best shots possible. First off, as I mentioned, put on your wide angle lens. This gives that distorted, wide view that really makes the final viewer feel like they are in the picture.

Next, you have to make sure your exposure is going to come out right. You'll be shooting up into backlit flowers with the bright sky behind it. This lighting scenario is going to trick your camera into making the picture too dark if you don't do something about it. If you know how to manually meter, just lock in your exposure before you start snapping away and you'll be good to go. If you're going to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program, push the exposure compensation up to something like +1.3 to +2.0 in order to make the picture brighter. Take a couple test shots to nail down the right compensation value.

Your camera's autofocus system is going to drive you nuts in this scenario. The AF can't focus on clear blue sky and it doesn't do well with backlighting, so chances are it's just going to be searching for focus nonstop and really slowing you down. So, just switch it to manual focus and pre-focus to the closest possible distance.

You'll want a pretty decent depth of field, but your wide angle lens has a big DOF as it is, so I'd recommend shooting somewhere around f/8-f/16.

Lastly is composition and how to actually take the shot. You're going to need such a low point of view that your camera will literally need to be on the ground. This won't allow you any room to look through the viewfinder, so you'll have to use the "shoot and pray" technique. Basically you will hold your camera down into the flowers, pointing upwards toward some flowers you think will make a good composition, and then just fire away. You won't see what your camera is seeing, so you'll just have to sort of guess what it's looking at and "pray" you got a good angle on it. Change your camera angle slightly between shots to cover a wider range and snap 5-10 pictures, then review on your screen to see how you're doing. After that, try an entirely new angle and composition and repeat. Shoot until you're sick of it or until the light's gone - whatever comes first.

Depending on how wide angle your lens is, you may find yourself getting some accidental self-portraits. Try to stretch away from your camera as best you can to avoid getting in the shot while you have it pushed down into the flowers.

This technique can be a little trickier than it sounds, but if you keep all the above tips in mind (especially on the exposure and auto focus), you'll do fine. It can be addictive, so go nuts! Now go out and get some new points of view on those flowers!

Photography Tips: Off-Site Image Backup

Skill Level: Intermediate

I want you to imagine something for a moment. Imagine that your computer's hard drive fails. It just dies. You go to turn on your computer one day and...nothing. Every last file and photo on your computer has been wiped clean simply because your system's hard drive decided to up and die on you. There's no explanation why it died, it just died. After all, it's not if your hard drive will fail, it's when. All hard drives will fail eventually.

So imagine losing every single thing on your computer. All your work documents, all your music and, of course, all your thousands of photos. The documents and music might not be a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. But the photos...that would be devastating.

This is why a regular system backup is not only wise, it's just plain stupid not to do it.

Ah, but wait. You do a regular system backup. In fact, you back up your computer to an external drive every night. Actually no, every hour. And it's to 3 different backup drives. And a server in another part of the building. So you're covered, right?

Well, what if the building burns down? Or what if there is a flood, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a tornado? Or what if someone just breaks into the building and snatches all the computers and hard drives? If, God forbid, any of those things were to happen, all the backups in the world won't do you any good so long as all the backups are under the same roof.

This is why having an off-site backup drive is such a good idea. And in this post, I'll show you how I do it.

Off-Site System Backup Box

On-Site Backups

In addition to the original, I have a total of 4 backups of all of my photos and 2 backups of the rest of my computer (work documents, music, videos, etc.). This is on a total of 5 hard drives - most of them external drives. All of these backups are on-site. In other words, they are in the same room as my main computer.

Time MachineMy main system backup is performed automatically every hour. This is done through Apple's built-in backup software called "Time Machine." It comes on every Mac and it is truly awesome. It backs up your system in the background every 60 minutes, allowing you to continue working uninterrupted. It also allows to "go back in time" to specific dates and recover individual files from that date. This has saved my bacon many times from accidentally overwriting a file I didn't mean to. With Time Machine, I can simply go back to before I overwrote it, and recover the original file like it never happened. You can learn more about Time Machine here.

I'm not a PC guy, so I'm not real savvy on the backup offerings for Windows, but here is a list of the Top 10 Backup Apps for Your PC by

As for my image backups, I do those at the beginning and end of any photo-editing session. So anytime I load new photos in to my computer, make adjustments or move images around on my hard drive, I run a backup of my images. I use Aperture (by Apple), which has a great built-in image backup tool called "Vaults." A Vault is basically a backup of your entire Aperture library, including all its settings, keywords, adjustments and everything else. With the click of a button, the backup starts and writes all your new files and changes to the backup vault. This is an excellent feature and is one of the many reasons I'm an Aperture user. You can learn more about Aperture here.

Aperture Vaults

I know Lightroom allows you to backup up the catalog, but I don't believe it has a built-in backup tool for the images themselves. I may be wrong on this, but you can always just back up your images with a regular backup tool like the ones here.

Off-Site Backup

Now for the absolute worst case scenario: a fire or earthquake destroys my computer, both my system backups and all 4 of my image backups. After all, they are all in the same room. This is where an off-site backup drive saves the day.

The key to a good off-site backup drive is that it's kept very far away and it's well-protected against damage. You take it home/to the office every week or so, run the backup software, then take it right back to its remote, off-site location for safe-keeping. For me, I keep my drive at my girlfriend's place about 20-30 miles away and just take it back to my place to run a backup every week or two.

If you have a computer at home and at the office, keep an office backup at home and a home backup at the office. Or keep your backup at a friend's house, at work or in a climate-controlled storage unit. Just get it far away from the original drive, but still convenient enough to fetch it every week.

My hard drive of choice for this is a LaCie 500GB Rugged Triple-Interface portable hard drive. I've had a few of these over the years and I love them. They are reliable, fast and are built to withstand drops better than most hard drives. It has USB, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 connections, too, which means it can connect to pretty much every computer around.

For added protection against dropping, jostling and water damage, I keep this hard drive in a Pelican 1120 case. Makes for easier transport and gives me a little more peace of mind against damage from being dropped accidentally. Using Pelican's customizable foam insert, I created a space for the hard drive and its cable. The whole package is solid, sealed and very well-protected from potential damage.

Off-Site System Backup Box

Off-Site System Backup Box

Off-Site System Backup Box

ChronoSyncThe backup software I use for this off-site external drive is called ChronoSync. It's a really extensive backup application with lots of customizable options. I don't use Mac's Time Machine for this off-site backup because Time Machine can only be used on one external drive (which I already have set up). So every week when I take this drive back to my workstation, I just plug it in, run ChronoSync and voila! My system is backed up and ready to return to its secure off-site location.

Online Backup

Just as a quick note, there are online backup services like Carbonite, which back up your system to a remote server and allow you to access your files from anywhere. It's a really great idea and isn't very expensive, but I tried it once and it just took too damn long to backup my 275+ GB. The initial backup would have taken weeks or months with my computer running 24 hours a day. But they offer a free trial, so give a try if you like.