What Can Photographers Learn From Rembrandt?

Rembrandt’s classic painting, The Night Watch, uses light to identify the main figures of interest.

Not everyone (myself included) has a degree in fine art or has studied art extensively. As such, I find it enjoyable to take a look at classic paintings and see what makes them so effective. One such example is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” If you examine this image, you’ll see that Rembrandt uses light and color to emphasize the important subjects in his painting. Note that the two primary figures are well-lit, but so is the smaller girl in the background. The other characters in this scene are not as bright and colorful as the ones Rembrandt wants us to focus on.

We can use the same technique in our digital photography. Studio photographers use well-positioned lights all the time to achieve this effect. However, if you’re an outdoor photographer, you might not always get the kind of lighting conditions that perfectly illuminate your subject.

In the as-shot image, the subject is darker than the background, making it appear less interesting.

Take for example this image of a bighorn sheep that I captured in South Dakota while leading a photo safari last year. The background is fairly bright compared to the subject, and I wasn’t using any sort of fill-flash. What I can do instead is use a little post-processing enhancement to make the subject really seem to pop out from the background. In this example, I used Nik Software’s Viveza 2 to selectively brighten the subject and darken the background. The final result is significantly better than the as-shot image.

After selectively adjusting the image in Viveza 2, the subject now stands out against its background and appears illuminated.

Here’s a brief video tutorial showing how I used Control Points in Viveza 2 to process the image.

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