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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.

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego ZooFemale Jaguar, Nindiri, at the San Diego Zoo
35mm Ilford Delta 400 film pushed 1 stop
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I'm a cat person through and through. I like cats. I "get" cats. And I'm absolutely enthralled with big cats. So when my girlfriend and I planned a trip to the San Diego Zoo, I made sure to stop by all the big cat exhibits.

Now I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer. I don't know why I'm not that attracted to photographing animals, but one thing that does light my fire is black and white wildlife photography. I mean just look at the stunning work of Nick Brandt (check out Artsy's Nick Brandt Page) or Andy Biggs. And oh man would I love to photograph wildlife with my medium format camera and a 110mm lens wide open to f/2.8 on some B&W film. Hey, a guy can dream...

I'm certainly not on the same level as Nick Brandt or Andy Biggs - they are masters of their craft - but I thought I'd do some casual black and white wildlife photography at the San Diego Zoo to try my hand at it.

I brought my 35mm camera and a single roll of Ilford Delta 400 film. I didn't take a single shot almost the entire day. Fences, mesh screens, dirty glass, and ugly, ugly light all gave me good reason to leave the camera in my backpack. But we eventually made our way to the African Rocks exhibit where we watched a gorgeous jaguar named Nindiri eat her lunch.

This cat was just stunning. Her smooth coat dotted with jet black spots, I concluded, is the most beautiful of any animal I'd ever seen. And lucky for me, her favorite eating spot was right up near the glass in a dark enclosure with soft light pouring in from the side. Beautiful animal + beautiful light = Nick's breaking out the camera for the first time all day. And unlike many of the other animals we saw, Nindiri was kind enough to face the camera.

It was a very tough shooting situation. It was ultra dim lighting that was repeatedly blocked by other patrons. And never mind their annoying red AF assist beams and on-camera flash killing the light I was trying to capture.

My ISO 400 film didn't give me a shutter speed nearly fast enough. It came out to something like 1/4 of a second, and I had no tripod. So decided to push my film 1 stop to ISO 800. For those of you unfamiliar, pushing film is a process wherein you use the film at an ISO rating higher than what the canister says, then just develop it like it's a higher ISO film. The result is a higher working ISO which allows for faster shutter speeds. The trade-off is that it results in more pronounced grain and exaggerated contrast.

Higher ISO, lower image quality. That old story...

But I was willing to make that tradeoff because the high grain can actually look kind of cool, and this was really my only option to get the shutter speed faster. So with my film pushed to ISO 800, my shutter speed increased all the way to 1/8. Still really damn slow. I had to just do my best with this slow shutter. I turned on image stabilizer, squatted down low, braced myself against a pillar and the glass, held my breath, and waited for moments when Nindiri was relatively still.

Many of the photos came out blurry from her movement, but I'm happy to say that no picture was ruined from camera shake. That's what you call a steady hand...

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Oh, and I got a couple pictures of the meerkats on our way out:

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

New Landscape Photography: San Onofre Beach at Sunset


Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Sunset at San Onofre Beach
4" at f/25, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND + Lee 1-stop grad ND
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Last month a friend of mine and I went for a sunset shoot at San Onofre Beach in Southern CA. I'm generally a "lone wolf" when it comes to doing landscape photography because I enjoy the solitude, but Eric and I are very much simpatico when it comes to style, methodology, and philosophy (check out Eric Bryan's amazing photography at ericbryan.net).

San Onofre Beach is unlike any other in Southern California. You won't find long stretches of white sandy beaches here. Much of the beach is riddled with smooth, round boulders the size of...uh, I dunno, like a volleyball but a little smaller. I clearly know nothing about sports...

But anyway, this beach is gorgeous and generally empty. Not exactly easy to navigate this rocky shore, but the views are unbeatable. And looking inland, the shore is flanked by some stately red-sand cliffs that are quite breathtaking under sunset light.

On this shoot, I opted for the wide 6x17 format using Fuji Velvia 50 film. Now I gotta be honest...the photos are a little too dark for my liking. It's partly that I just overestimated how dark I wanted it to be, but here's the thing about Velvia 50 film: it's rated at ISO 50, but it really isn't 50. Based on my experiments and analyzation, I need to rate it more like ISO 33 or 25 in order to get accurate metering. I did ISO 33 here. I should have done 25.

And here's the other thing: my Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens exhibits some serious light falloff at the edges. Every wide angle lens on 6x17 format does. And I didn't have a center ND filter for this evening's shoot. That meant the edges came out much darker than I anticipated. The center of the frame looks spot on in regards to exposure, but the edges came out too dark. And since Velvia 50 is so contrasty, that 1 to 1-1/3 stops of light falloff at the edges looks major.

Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Post-Sunset at San Onofre Beach
20" at f/22, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND
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I overestimated on my metering, I used a little too much split ND, I should have rated the film at ISO 25, I needed a center ND filter. Excuses excuses. Oh well. I'll do better next time. And I just picked myself up a sweet center ND filter off eBay to remedy the light falloff issue. It was a steal at $275. Center ND filters are ridiculously expensive. They usually run about $400-$500 used.

The composition could use some improvement, too. But it's time to stop flogging myself. The photos are actually pretty solid. I'm happy with them. It's just that inner photography teacher coming out of me.

The shot at top was made right as the sun dipped to the horizon. The second image was a little after sunset. Please click the images for larger views. These images are pointless unless you can see all the details.