Lights on portrait photography

by Francois Deslauriers

I have always been captivated by portrait photography and the way it goes behind the camera. When I was young, photographs of artists, album covers featuring my favorite bands, and portraits of authors on the dust jackets of books fascinated me. I feel this way even now, when I view portraits of historical figures in the Library and Archives Canada collection on which the digitization team has the opportunity to work. When looking at these images, I ask myself: “How did the photographer arrive at this result? And what brings depth to a portrait?” It’s not just luck. It’s all in the lighting!

Of course, there are several other important aspects to the making of an image: the composition, the shot, the choice of lens, and more. Lighting techniques in portrait photography, as well as in filmmaking, including today’s cinema, have a very solid foundation dating back to the 17th century in the works of the painter Rembrandt. One of the most frequently used lighting technique in modern photography has been named after the Great Master: Rembrandt lighting.

Let’s take a look at this technique and its origins.

The Rembrandt lighting technique owes its name to the Great Master who often used this method in his own portraits. The scenes and portraits he painted often represent scenes lit by light sources such as windows or candles.

Black-and-white photo of a young woman in a white lace dress, facing the camera.

Éva Gauthier, 1906. Photo: William James Topley (a193008)

At its most basic level, Rembrandt lighting is usually done with a single light source placed at about 45 degrees from the subject and slightly higher than eye level. The concept is to create an inverted triangle of light on the subject’s cheek on the shadow side. This is very flattering, as it creates lighting that “shapes” the subject’s face and can be controlled. As viewers’ eyes are generally drawn to bright areas of an image, this technique allows the photographer to highlight a profile of the subject, in particular through distinct bright areas of light, while at the same time creating an opposite side in the shadows. (See also: Chiaroscuro) This can be used to the advantage of the subject in order to highlight and emphasize features with bright areas and conceal others by keeping them in the shadows. The contrast thus created between the bright side and the shadow side also brings dimension, atmosphere and drama to the photograph, and therefore gives greater impact to the image.

Black-and-white photo of a man in a dark suit, facing the camera.

Mr. Norman Watt, 1905. Topley Studio (e011169853)

Colour photograph of a woman with glasses looking towards the camera. Beakers and bottles containing liquids are in the foreground.

Portrait of Deborah Zamble, 2002. Susan King (e006610232) Copyright: Susan King.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman holding a cigarette.

Joan Crawford, actress. Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh (a212246)

It is important that the viewer’s attention be on the eyes of the subject. This is achieved by creating a catch-light in both eyes. What are “catch-lights,” you may ask? These are the small white dots that appear in the subject’s eyes when the reflection from the light source hits the eyeballs. In a portrait, the position of the light is key. The light source is usually positioned high enough to create that light triangle, and low enough to create catch-lights in the eyes. The viewer’s attention is thus drawn to the eyes, which seem to sparkle.

A black-and-white photograph of a man with his hands clasped together in front of him.

Albert Einstein, 1948. Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh. (A212510 )

A black-and-white photograph of a boy in a suit.

Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, 1870. Photo credit: William James Topley. (a025346)

The beauty of technology is that today we have powerful light sources, such as flashes or LED light panels, which are daylight color balanced and portable. These light sources are certainly much more convenient than candles!

Rembrandt lighting is a simple, effective and flattering method of lighting for a wide variety of subjects. If you are attentive, you will be able to see it in many portrait photographs found in the collection, even in your favorite movies and television series.


Francois Deslauriers is a digital imaging technician in the Digital Operations and Preservation division at Library and Archives Canada.

The Children of Topley – Pint-sized portraits from the William Topley collection

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books, the Topley collection dates from 1868 to 1923, and illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montreal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

By the early 1870s Topley had purchased the studio he had been managing for William Notman, and was attracting upwards of 2,300 sitters per year. Topley’s prestigious downtown Ottawa location—he moved multiple times over the years, but always within walking distance to parliament—meant he attracted much of the city’s elite, including politicians and other important figures, who made their way to the photographer’s studio to have their portraits taken.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings. In looking through these images we notice not only recognizable names, identifying some of these children as the offspring of the capital city’s movers and shakers, but something unchanged despite the time period. We see beyond the formality, the constricting clothing and stiff poses, and recognize that these portraits are not too different from those we might take today. We recognize children dressed up for a photo, attempting to sit still, looking either overly eager or slightly bored.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl in a white dress.

Missie McLaren, 1873 (MIKAN 3461050)

Studio photographers of this era often had clients pose with props, and Topley was no different. In his portraits of children we notice items like books, skipping ropes, dolls or pets clutched in the hands of the small sitters. Some children stand or sit up very straight with serious, concentrated expressions on their faces, while others lounge tiredly in chairs. In these ones especially, we can imagine how tedious the long exposures must have felt to a child, how many plates the photographer might have had to take to get a proper, non-blurry image.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl with her chin resting on her hands, a book beside her.

Missie Cambie, 1877 (MIKAN 3435180)

Also interesting are the portraits of babies with hidden, or barely-in-the-frame mothers. It was quite common at the time for babies to sit on their mothers’ laps for a portrait, while a blanket or other fabric was thrown over the mother so that only the baby would be the focus. In several of Topley’s portraits of babies, we see a more subtle approach, with the mother encouraging the child from the edge of the frame. The photographer would later crop the mother out for the final print.

Black-and-white photograph of a young child with the mother to the right, partially blacked out.

Missie Ruttan, 1876 (MIKAN 3434482)

These wonderful portraits provide an alternative perspective on the face of Canada’s capital in the nineteenth century, and seem to offer a bridge from past to present, where some things never change.

Black-and-white photograph of two young boys in black jackets, one seated and one standing on a chair.

Two boys posing—Master Borthwick, 1882 (MIKAN 3418410)

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl dressed in winter clothing.

Missie Helena Topley, 1882 (MIKAN 3418246)

Related resources:

Capital City Portraits: Faces from the Topley Collection

One of the most popular collections at Library and Archives Canada is the William James Topley photograph collection, acquired in 1936. The Topley collection is comprised of over 150,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives, in addition to 68 studio proof albums, daily assignment logs and account books.

Dating from 1868 to 1923, the large collection illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montréal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. Having worked in Montréal for a number of years as an apprentice to the well-known photographer, William James Topley, would eventually drop the Notman name and run his own studio from a series of Ottawa addresses, moving from Wellington Street to the corner of Metcalfe and Queen, and finally to two separate addresses on Sparks Street.

The photographs produced during Topley’s lengthy career serve as a fascinating visual reference to life in Ottawa, as well as other Canadian cities and towns. His images include street scenes documenting daily life, commissioned photographs of store fronts, Parliament Hill before, during, and after the 1916 fire, and perhaps most compelling, his portraits of citizens, both famous and otherwise.

By 1872, the Topley studio was attracting more than 2,300 sitters a year, including prime ministers, governors general, members of Ottawa’s high society, businessmen, and average citizens. He created his famous composite image of the first major Canadian fancy dress ball, hosted by the Earl of Dufferin and his wife, in 1876.

Many of Topley’s clients were the families of Ottawa’s movers and shakers. Being the capital city, it was common for relatives of politicians, land owners and lumber barons to make their way to Topley’s studio at some point, to sit for a portrait. In the early nineteenth century, it was still a somewhat prestigious event to have your portrait taken, and wives, children, and even pets were photographed at the studio, some of them multiple times over the years.

In viewing these wonderful portraits, it is fascinating to see the clothing, hairstyles, and expressions of Ottawa’s earlier citizens, and interesting to see the faces of people for whom some of Ottawa’s streets, parks and schools are named.

Miss Powell, 1870

Miss Powell, 1870 (MIKAN 3479280)

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873 (MIKAN 3461227)

Mr. Brewer, 1875

Mr. Brewer, 1875 (MIKAN 3433630)

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889.

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889 (MIKAN 3448969)

Mrs. Bronson, 1869

Mrs. Bronson, 1869 (MIKAN 3478860)

Other local portait sitters

For further research