Perhaps no other artist on the face of the planet has inspired and influenced the work of countless photographers so much as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn or who we commonly refer to as just Rembrandt. There's a reason this guy is referred to as a master (I declined to use the word old) and he even has a lighting technique named after him!
The good thing is for us photographers is that its a pretty simple technique to get down in that you only need one light to pull it off. You may need a few other things but those can be acquired cheaply. Rembrandt's light emulates soft, afternoon or morning light, with usually warm tones, coming from a window to the side of the model. There are tons of interpretations but in a nutshell, that's pretty much it.
Recently, English portrait and fashion photographer Rankin did a series of portraits in the style of Rembrandt. There are two, really good behind the scenes videos of the shoots at the bottom of this post. I was inspired by these to try to do a Rembrandt style 'selfie'.
For the portrait at the top of the post, I used an Alien Bees B800 in a medium size, gridded softbox to light the portrait. I wanted to use a square-ish shaped softbox to better emulate window light and had to use the grid because I was shooting in my home 'studio' which is fairly small and has white ceilings and light gray walls. If I didn't use the grid there was simply too much fill light all over the place which lessened the look of Rembrandt lighting.
Another thing to note is that I found that I got the best look by having the softbox raised as high as a standard window might be, maybe a little higher and placed about three feet out in front of me. By placing the light out in front of me instead of directly to the side, the light wrapped the shadow side of my face better giving that little, upside down triangle of light (which is a signature look of Rembrandt's) on my camera right cheek.
The other adjustment I had to make was that since my walls are light gray and the room is fairly small, I had to place a black sheet to camera right of me. This made the light fall off more appropriate and reduced the fill light considerably. I simply held this up with a stand and a boom arm reflector holder. You can see my full set up in the iPhone pic below... (note that in the pic below, my softbox looks very close to the back, but in all actuality is probably 4-5 feet away from the background)
Something else that really added to the look of a Rembrandt portrait is the background. I have a distressed/mottled gray muslin that really does have that look of an old master's painting. I picked mine up at a local camera store called Murphy's camera but I'm sure you can find these elsewhere as well. I didn't use a separate light for the background since the softbox I used for my main light spilled a little light on the background. You could very easily light the background separately though if you wanted to.
One last thing that really added to this look was my white balance setting. Now this is something you can easily do in Photoshop or most post processing tools but I really like to have as close to a finished image in my camera as possible, so I chose to set the white balance in camera. All I did was set my white balance to 'flash'. This warmed the whole scene up considerably, so much so that I actually reduced it in post a bit. This definitely was the finishing move to get this look though.
As far as post work goes, I just reduced the warm tones that were a result of my white balance settings, I burned a few areas of the image down, and reduced the depth of field with an opacity layer and a gaussian blur. Only took a few minutes for these edits and if I was a little better at editing, I would have tried to make the portrait look more like a painting. Ah well, gives me something else to work on. ;)
Again, this is a pretty easy technique to get down and such a cool, iconic look. I wish I had some period clothes to wear for this. ;)
Below is the link to the videos of photographer Rankin doing his Rembrandt sessions...
Rankin shoots Rembrandt Video 1 of 2
Rankin shoots Rembrandt Video 2 of 2