What is Chiaroscuro, and why should we use this lighting technique?

What is Chiaroscuro, and why should we use this lighting technique?

Chiaroscuro, is an Italian term that refers to the intense contrast of light (chiar) and dark (oscuro) in art, famously used in the paintings of Rembrandt or Caravaggio to create a strong and dramatic mood. It is also referred to as ‘clair obscur’ or ‘extreme low key’.

The Calling of Saint Matthew 1599
Caravaggio – The Calling of St Matthew, 1599 – 1600

We have been using Chiaroscuro with models at our workshops (the next one is 24th September 2018) but this style of lighting is not just for portraits, it is used a great deal for landscape, still life and if you take a wander through Instagram – for food photography.

Learning the basics will set you up to give any scene the illusion of being three-dimensional. The lighting adds depth and impact, and the contrast between shadows and highlights creates a mysterious atmosphere.

Man of Clay
Sculpting with light and shadow – chiaroscuro

Whilst it lends itself very well to black and white it is also used in colour photography. Dark colours add richness and drama to a scene. The lustre of jewel tones and luxuriousness of earth tones give your image a depth of colour as if you had blended those colours out of pigment yourself.

For still life or food photography, it can be used to add shadow to make an object rise off the page, or side lighting to create a painterly effect.

For landscape, it can create a sense of foreboding or danger. Use broken sunlight through clouds to add a sense of mystery or brooding. This might take timing, patience, or luck but the effects are worth it.

For portraiture it can add intrigue and mystery, enhance beauty, highlight and sculpt, or even add characteristics such as untrustworthiness.

Chiaroscuro in landscape
Chiaroscuro in landscape photography

This technique allows us to really study lighting, to read the subtle nuances of light and shade and to learn how your camera views and records it.

Digital photography is a wonderful form of art in that it allows us to experiment over and over again. Once you have a camera and lens, you can take thousands of photos perfecting your lighting and angles. Join us to learn Chiaroscuro and then the sky is the limit!

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