As a kid I bought a Rembrandt painting for over $100,000. It was a forgery and I only cared because it hurt my chances of winning. We were playing Masterpiece, a board game by Parker Brothers where players collected famous works of art. The Rembrandt was my favorite of the game’s paintings. I loved the way he used shadow to create mystery, while judiciously adding light to draw attention to the subject and add depth.
The Baroque Dutch Master’s use of shadow and light influenced future artists, film makers, and photographers so much that Rembrandt has a lighting style named after him. Besides the trade mark lighting on one side of the face with a triangle of light on the other cheek, what do we see from many of Rembrandt’s paintings?
The facial lighting is well known to photographers. The light is at a 45 degree angle up and to the side of the subject. That alone gives you the lighting style, but not the look, of some of the Master’s paintings. This lighting style keeps the attention on the subject’s face, but let your eyes explore those shadows. In the paintings they are deep, but there is detail there as well. As photographers we must remember the painter’s eye can see into those shadows. Our cameras, with limited dynamic ranges, can’t. As photographers we have to realize those blacks have some detail, and we need to light in order to prevent them from being crunched.
Don’t fall into the trap of putting a light or reflector on the unlit side of the face to bring the shadows up. This will eliminate the light fall off into shadows on the dark side of the subject that we see in many of the Dutch Masters’ works. Remember, an eye sees more stops than our cameras. A light source on the camera’s axis, but at a lower power than the key light, will add detail as if the viewer’s eyes were adjusting to the shadows in the room. Using a large umbrella on camera axis will help with the deep shadows. If there isn’t room, then firing a strobe into a white wall or v-flat behind the camera can lift the shadows. To maintain the darker shadow fall off on the unlit side, I often add a black side V-flat on the side as negative fill.
The room behind the subject needs some light as well. Just as the Masters didn’t use a formula, the amount of light will be up to each artist. I use a light behind the subject, on the same side as the key light. I keep the angle of this light close to that of the key in order to replicate the look of natural light coming through windows on one side of the studio.
As a modern photographer, I usually don’t try to recreate the clothing of the 17th and 18th centuries. I add a modern, but often understated, styling to the light and shadow relationship that marked the Baroque Masters’ paintings. With the portability of foldable v-flats I can set up quickly in various spaces. A large studio becomes a small, intimate studio with “walls” of v-flats added. When shooting in smaller spaces I can maneuver the folded v-flats into position before opening them. V-Flat World’s v-flats fit my needs when setting up the Dutch Masters’ look.
I use Nikon cameras and lenses, and Profoto strobes. For this look I use three strobes. First, I set up the fill behind me and set it to just bring up the shadows in the scene. The power on the fill light will end up being 1.5 - 3 stops below the key. The key light is then adjusted. I fire it into a beauty dish or softbox. The third light is then set behind the subject at 1 – 2 stops below the key.
Grab an art history book, or Google Baroque images, to dial in the look further. Experiment with your set and have fun!
Greg Thomason is a commercial headshot and portrait photographer located in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area.