Toy Photography Rembrandt Lighting

On Monday I mentioned Rembrandt lighting as one of the characteristics of Annie Leibovitz photographic style. Following that, I felt the need to play with toys and lights… at home. Something unusual for me who mostly plays outside.

Just out of curiosity, I wanted to see how easy (or difficult) it was to get something close to Rembrandt lighting with toys, and in particular with LEGO Minifigs.

Rembrandt lighting

A Rembrandt lighting is a technique used in portrait photography that imitates the lighting style of Dutch painter Rembrandt. One characteristic of many of Rembrandt’s paintings is the specific use of low-key light creating a shadow shaped like a triangle below one of the eyes of the subject. The goal is to create interesting shadows and lights driving the eyes of the viewer through the frame.

Self-Portrait of Rembrandt (1658)

In photography, this is usually achieved by placing the main source of light above the subject at a 45° angle.

The problem with LEGO

What creates the interesting shadows of a Rembrandt-style lighting, is the presence of a nose on a human face. The problem with LEGO Minifigures is that they don’t have one. So I decided instead to try with a Minidoll as it appears they actually have one! (And also because that’s the subject I want to use for my year project.) They’re also made of a less reflective plastic, which helps deal with undesired reflections.

The setup

My photo idea was quite simple. I wanted a plain shot of Azari’s face, against a dark background and create a Chiaroscuro. For that, I put my camera with my macro lens on a tripod in front of Azari standing up on my kitchen table. Then I used a single light source placed very close to the figure and took several pictures.

I didn’t use any specific background because the light was so close to the figure. With such a bright light, I had to use camera settings that would prevent any ambient light, and so any item in the background, to be visible in my photos.

I took several pictures changing only the position of the light. I tried to place it on both sides and changed how high the light was placed, and the angle at which it was facing her. I also tried to place the light in front of her, knowing it wouldn’t create a Rembrandt lighting.

The result

From all my photos, a couple were discarded because of reflections I wanted to avoid.

Because I didn’t use a reflector, parts of many of my photos were either too bright or too dark. So for the final image, I actually combined three photos in Photoshop. I used one main photo with the light coming from the right. Then I used two other photos: one with the light placed on the left and one with the light placed in front on the top of the figure. I set the blending mode of the two photos to”lighting” (so that only the bright areas would be visible) and gave them a very low opacity (5%).

The final photo.


Overall I’m not unhappy with the result, considering this was done on a single evening. That said, there are some issues that I don’t know how to solve. It’s hard to judge whether this gives really a Rembrandt style light. Even though Minidolls have a nose, it’s not big enough to create a shadow. Most of the shadows in my photos were created by the shape of the head, and the presence of the hairpiece. Maybe using toys with more realistic human faces would make the result closer to Rembrandt lighting.

Finally, the atmosphere in the photo is nothing like the kind of atmosphere in a photo from Annie Leibovitz. Even though Minidolls are less shiny than regular Minifigs, they are still made of plastic and don’t reflect light like human skin does. This is particularly a problem with the hair where the reflection of the LED ligh is visible.

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