(*Blog authors note: Hi, I’ve been seeing a lot of traffic from google searches to this article. I’d love to hear from those readers about if and how the following article is helping them! thanks and I hope you enjoy – Tyson)
Many art forms mimic the artistic mediums that came before it. Portrait photography is a way to paint a subject with light and has always been very influenced by the previous predominant form of portrait art, painting. One master painter that is studied by photographers for his use of light, shadow and impeccable chiaroscuro shading techniques is Rembrandt. …Dude knew his light.
Another self portrait from later on in Rembrandt’s life.
His directional depiction of light on his subjects helped him create a signature style. A style that is commonly utilized in portrait photography and a pretty easy one to replicate with decent results. Notice the direction of the light source in the portraits above. It is coming from the viewers left and from an angle that is unable to fully illuminate the left (Rembrandt’s left) side of his face. He’s also shown this in the reflection in the collar of his earlier self portrait. His paintings would regularly use this hard side light to great and dramatic effect. Another element to notice is the way that the light hits his left cheek. Because his nose obscures the light source, it creates an inverted triangle with the light falling off to accentuate the curves and contours in his face. This would have us guess that the light was coming from about a 45-60 degree angle away from the viewer on the left. He would employ this directional light to accurately depict dimension in his paintings whether they were portraits, or larger scale scenes like his famous painting, “The Night Watch”.
The Night Watch is one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings. I’ve been lucky enough to view this painting in its home at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is HUGE. The figures in the foreground are larger than a life sized human, and the painting itself could occupy the side of a two story house. A small, low resolution image file does not get close to doing this painting justice. I would highly suggest, if you are ever in that corner of the world to spend a day in the museum and a fair bit of time with this painting.
Okay, on to our application. We will walk through a simple set up and I will show you a quick and easy way to use this type of directional light to create moody and contrasty portraits. Firstly I will say, I am going to use this blog to help motivate me into documenting our newly burgeoning family, and seeing as I don’t want to pay for models, you will be stuck with my mug more often than not with the occasional wife and baby shot sprinkled around. That said, the first shot I set up and took in less than a minute. Easy breezy. I used a simple work light that I bought from my local home improvement store, you know the type with a silver dish and spring clamp that uses a standard household bulb. I think I bought a two pack and it ran me less than $10. What I am saying, is you can use any old light. For this purpose though I found it easier with a light source that could be directionally adjusted. I placed the light at roughly a 40 degree angle from me and placed it just above head height. Here is the “set up” shot followed by the result.
Not a beautiful picture, the light source is very hard and the light falloff on my face is quick and dirty, but an example that gets our point across. Now, if you wanted to “fancy” up this shot, you could very easily get a reflector (or large white piece of paper or foamcore) and put that behind me and off to the side opposite the light to reflect a little light on my dark side opening up the shadows a little bit. Eh, for a 1 minute set up it will have to do.
Next, I tried a bit more of a technical approach and the little guy, decked out as a Treble Maker this afternoon, helped me on this one. I brought out a couple bigger strobes, one in a softbox and the other above me through a grid (which for those who don’t yet speak photo-nese a grid is a honeycomb-like apparatus that controls the spill of the light into a “beam” more or less) to give my head a bit more dimension by separating it from the background. Again, the set up drawing followed by the shot.
In this shot, notice the angle of the softbox. Because the softbox creates a soft, wrapping light, if I were to point it directly at me I would have lost the nose shadow, so I “feathered” the light so that I caught the edge of it. The light in this shot is not as harsh and it falls off much more gradually, kind of similar by comparison to the two self portrait paintings above, the latter of the two showing a much more gradual shift from the bright highlights to the shadows.
So there you have it. Pretty easy stuff with fun results. Using it as a jumping off point and adding a rim light hitting from behind, or background light could add even more depth. Have at it!
**The paintings depicted above are © and property of the Estate of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, or their respective owners, and used here with intention by the author for personal study and educational purposes only. No other use is permitted.