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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 matter...at 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.

Portrait Photography With the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L


Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
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I was hired to photograph an event recently that was to take place in a dimly lit restaurant. Aside from carrying 2 flash units with me, I decided to rent a Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens for some low-light non-flash photos. This bad boy is Canon's top of the line 50mm lens and it only costs $30 to rent at Pro Photo Connection in Irvine. Plus, I was able to take advantage of the old trick where you can rent 3 days for the price of 1: rent it after 3:00pm on Friday, pay for Saturday, they're closed Sunday, return it Monday morning.

Canon 50mm f/1.2 L

The lens worked like a charm at the event, but I wasn't about to let the remainder of my short time with this beautiful lens go to waste. So I called up my brother and we conspired to do a little photo shoot on Sunday. My goal was simple. I wanted to really put this lens through its paces by using it in a realistic fashion for which it would be most suited. That means low-light natural-light portraits with the aperture wide open. No side-by-side comparison images, no analyzing color fringing, no looking at MTF charts - none of that useless drivel. I wanted a real-life, practical application experience with this beauty of a lens.

I prefer natural light over artificial light any day of the week. But it has to be good natural light. No direct sunlight on this shoot. I wanted something soft yet dramatic. Something that would bring out the rich textures of denim and highlight the rugged good looks of my brother (yeah, I'm comfortable saying that...), without creating too much contrast for my film to handle. Oh yeah...and I'd only be shooting film. Film with an ISO rating no higher than 160. For the series you see here, I used Kodak Portra 160 on my Canon EOS-1v with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. In some soon-to-come posts, I'll also show you  shots I made on medium format Kodak Portra as well as medium format and 35mm black and white Ilford Delta 100 film. I'll be talking more about this in the next post, but this was my first time shooting Kodak Portra and I have to say (and pardon my French) goddamn is this a beautiful film. I finally understand people's obsession with this film stock now.

Now I know that the majority of my readers shoot digital, not film. And that's cool. The only reason I'm pointing out that I shot film here is that I want my readers to understand that you can get great portraits without a ton of Photoshop work! These portraits were done on film, meaning no Photoshop, no Lightroom trickery, nothing. This is how they came out of the camera. I see so many portraits these days that have a dozen different Lightroom filters applied, an extra hour's worth of skin smoothing, the eyes over-sharpened and over-brightened, a cheesy ultra-stylized imitation film look applied...just way too much editing. But I want to show you that all you need is good light and good shooting technique. Find yourself a nice, big, soft light source, then put your model there. Then it's just a matter of knowing how to shoot in manual the right way (interested in learning?).

I'm going to be talking all about how to find good light for portraits in the next blog post, so stay tuned. For this post, I want to focus on the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens.

I'll give you my straight, un-scientific opinion right off the bat: if I were to buy a wide aperture 50mm prime lens for my Canon DSLR, I wouldn't get the 50mm f/1.2 L, I'd get the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens instead. Don't get me wrong, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L is a sharp, well-built, beautiful wide aperture lens, but it's just too expensive and too heavy for my taste. The 1.2L is about $1,700 and weighs 1.3 pounds! The f/1.4 version, in sharp contrast, only costs about $450 and weighs just 10 ounces. A good 50mm prime should be lightweight, small, and inconspicuous! That's half the point of these lenses.

Now some may say, "Yeah, but the 1.2 version must be a lot sharper." I'm sure it's a little sharper...but $1200 sharper? I doubt it. From the side-by-side reviews I've read, it really isn't that much sharper - at least not enough to justify the price and weight. The cheaper 50mm f/1.4 is plenty sharp even for me. What you're really paying for with that extra $1200 isn't so much the glass as it is the weather sealing (you know, so you can shoot portraits in the rain), the tougher build quality (so you can do some portraits in battle), and curved aperture blades. The 50mm f/1.2 has curved aperture blades whereas the 1.4 doesn't. This means that the aperture on the 1.2 actually forms a circle instead of an octagon. Some people make a big stink about how this makes the bokeh (that's the out of focus areas in the background) look better. It probably does in side-by-side comparison images, but again, I really wouldn't say it's worth $1200.

So if you want a beautiful, heavy, expensive, weather-sealed 50mm lens with curved aperture blades, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. If you want something lighter weight and much more affordable that is still plenty sharp, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.4. You'll only lose 1/3-stop of light on the aperture (which is almost nothing) and you'll just have to live with straight aperture blades - like virtually ever other lens manufactured.

Whatever the case, if you decide to use either of these lenses wide open or nearly wide open, get ready for a lot of blurry pictures. The depth of field is so insanely small at these ultra-wide apertures that once you achieve focus, try not to breath, otherwise your area of focus will shift off of where you want it. I had a hell of a time keeping the focus in the right spot with this lens. Just look at the first picture below for what I'm talking about. The DOF is so small that it doesn't even reach his ear!

Keep an eye out for my next two blog posts talking about finding good natural light for portraits and shooting in B&W.

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Park at Night on Ilford Delta 100 filmPark at Night - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:55pm
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Well, I finally made it to the 30th and final day of my photo a day challenge. I again found myself out at night to make my exposures, this time at a neighborhood park near where I grew up. The real reason I chose to visit this park to take photos is because there is a beautiful Gratitude and Honor Memorial set up there for the fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And seeing as how the date on this night was September 11th, I thought it would be fitting to photograph the memorial.

Here is a shot of just one section of one of the panels on this memorial. There are  20 panels in all - each one filled with names of soldiers killed in combat. As of this writing there are 6,714 names engraved in the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial (per www.northwoodmemorial.com). If you carefully review the names in the photo below, it's chilling to note some of the ages of these soldiers.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Northwood Park Military Memorial on Ilford Delta 100 filmWar Memorial - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:26pm
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The panels are glossy, so it was difficult to avoid reflections clouding the names. I first tried to get my own reflection out of the frame, but then I decided to let my outline show in the composition. I felt that my silhouette might serve as a reminder that these names aren't simply names on a plaque but names that represent real flesh-and-blood people fallen in the line of duty.

If you're in the area, I strongly recommend visiting this memorial.

After taking this photo of the memorial, I decided to venture around the park in search of other shots to finish off my final roll of film. I eventually found my way to the back of the park where I fixed my camera on a tree and lamppost with an interesting backdrop of silhouetted rooflines. Much like the photo from yesterday's blog entry, I think this shot of the lamppost is going to speak much more to me than anyone else. As I continue to mature in my photography, I'm realizing that more than capturing moments or subjects, I really want to capture "vibes" and emotions - those deeply-ingrained feelings that can't be articulated in words. This image of the lamppost and tree, I feel, captures a "vibe" that I can't articulate. I don't know if you'll get that same vibe from it, but that's what I like about it.

This 30-day photo a day challenge has been a huge growing experience for me. It helped me discover new approaches to photography and how to find photos in situations and subjects I wouldn't have otherwise thought to photograph. It helped me reach a point where I know now what to do next. I have project ideas sprouting up in my head left and right. The creative juices are flowing and I know where to go from here. This challenge certainly served its purpose.

Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.