I think that photographers can learn a lot from classic works of art – not only by early photographers, but also from painters, sculptors, and other artists who lived before photography was even a twinkle in Nicéphore Niépce’s eye. One technique that is especially applicable to photography is called chiaroscuro.
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What Is Chiaroscuro?
Chiaroscuro literally means “light/dark.” The term traditionally refers to Renaissance paintings where the subject is well-lit and three-dimensional, usually with exaggerated shadows and highlights, and a background that transitions into darker, heavily-shadowed areas. Other artists after the Renaissance have also made use of chiaroscuro.
One of the most famous examples of chiaroscuro is the following work by Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy:
It’s has a dark, contrasty look, with dense shadows – though, for the most part, not completely black. The use of shadows in the background gives the painting an impression of depth and three-dimensionality. The subjects, meanwhile, are lit carefully, almost sculpted, by the light and shadow that falls on them.
Two other beautiful examples of chiaroscuro are Vermeer’s The Astronomer and Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
In all three paintings above, the artists relied upon plentiful and nuanced shadows to give the paintings dimension. It borders on a spotlight effect, although the dark backgrounds aren’t completely black or flat, like a strong spotlight might achieve. The light/dark transition is still visible in all three works.
How Chiaroscuro Looks in Photos
Although chiaroscuro didn’t originally refer to photographs, you can see how the same principles could apply. If your photos have dark shadows, high contrast, and carefully-sculpted highlights, you may already be taking pictures in the vein of chiaroscuro without even realizing it.
I’d like to try not to interpret a carefully-defined word in art history like chiaroscuro too broadly. To me, a photo that’s simply dark or has big regions of shadow isn’t necessarily chiaroscuro.
The following photo, for example, has roughly the same light/dark tones found in some examples of chiaroscuro, but it doesn’t use those tones to sculpt a sense of depth; the shadows aren’t falling on the subject, and the image lacks three-dimensionality. I wouldn’t call it chiaroscuro:
This photo, on the other hand, I would call an example of chiaroscuro. It has a luminous yet shadow-covered subject, which is surrounded by darker (but not uniformly black) regions, giving the photo a clear sense of depth and dimension:
Why would you aim for chiaroscuro in a photo? I believe it can be a very desirable look in photography. Chiaroscuro sends a dramatic message thanks to the high contrast, and it also evokes a sense of deliberateness in the photo, since this isn’t the type of look that usually happens by accident. Good photos with chiaroscuro feel three-dimensional and refined. Above, the deep shadows and occasional highlights sculpt this forest with a sense of depth. There are some small areas of pitch black, but almost all of the shadows have subtle details, unlike the Milky Way example photo from a moment ago.
Finding the Right Subject for Chiaroscuro
Even though most discussions of chiaroscuro in photography focus on the “oscuro” (darkness) part of the definition, I think the more important things are depth and contrast. To achieve this in a photo, everything starts with finding the right subject.
It’s easiest to capture chiaroscuro when an obvious light source is present, compared to something like an overcast day. You’ll want to look for deep shadows across the scene, with other areas – ideally your subject – remaining well-lit. The shadows on your subject should give it dimension, while the rest of the photo will usually be darker and help your subject stand out against its surroundings.
Chiaroscuro is not an obvious yes/no situation. I’ve taken plenty of photos that have some elements that fit with chiaroscuro, and others that don’t. I think the following photo is right on the edge of chiaroscuro, for example:
It has practically the stereotypical tones for chiaroscuro, and the direct light on the subject gives it a bit of depth. But the totally featureless areas above and below the bright mountain make this photo look flatter and less three-dimensional than chiaroscuro normally would imply. It’s not that it’s a bad look, but I don’t know that it’s quite the same as chiaroscuro.
Meanwhile, I think the following photo is a closer example to the traditional meaning of chiaroscuro:
In the image above, subtle highlights shine on the most important subjects, while the shadows provide a sense of depth. It’s a dark and high-contrast image overall, but even the deepest shadows have textures that prevent them from looking flat. Few real-world scenes can match the exact feel of a painting with chiaroscuro, but this one definitely leans in that direction.
Not that this is always desirable, of course; chiaroscuro is just one type of look. It’s not always something to aim for, and just because a photo has elements of chiaroscuro doesn’t mean it’s always a good photo. For the same reason that high-key or low-key images must fit the mood you want to convey, so must chiaroscuro.
The Effect of Post-Processing
Aside from finding the right subject, the best way to evoke a sense of chiaroscuro in a photo is through careful post-processing. And I do mean careful. Just bumping up contrast and lowering brightness usually isn’t going to be enough on its own.
A technique that goes hand in hand with chiaroscuro in photography is dodging and burning. Dodging and burning is another term for local post-processing adjustments that selectively brighten or darken certain parts of the photo. Usually, dodging and burning are used to draw attention toward your subject and away from distracting parts of the photo. They can also sculpt the shadows and highlights of the image to provide a particular mood.
It’s probably easiest to understand how post-processing can create chiaroscuro by looking at an example. Here’s a minimally-processed image that definitely doesn’t evoke chiaroscuro:
The image above is relatively bright and has few substantial shadows in the photo, since it was taken on an overcast day. The result is a pretty flat-looking photo, even though the scene had plenty of depth in the real world.
A scene like this with completely overcast light is unlikely to be a perfect example of chiaroscuro, no matter what post-processing adjustments I make. But I can still push the photo dramatically in that direction compared to the original:
Much closer, at least! This edit is probably a bit exaggerated, but hopefully now you can see just how far you can push an image in the direction of chiaroscuro via post-processing. Note that this isn’t just a darker version of the original photo. Plenty of the photo is actually brighter than it was before, like the waterfall itself and the rock near the tree at the bottom.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the many local dodging (brightening) adjustments I made to the image, with the areas of red showing the exact spots I edited:
By brightening those parts of the photo, like the edges of various elements of the composition, I was attempting to give more three-dimensionality to those parts of the photo. For example, even though most of the rocks ended up darker overall, I aimed to make them look less flat than they did in the original. Beyond that, I did my best to make sure that even the darkest areas of the photo didn’t turn into totally black silhouettes that look like cardboard cutouts.
Again, I’ll emphasize that chiaroscuro is just one way to post-process a photo. There are tons of ways to edit a photo, and the best one depends on the look you want. I think that chiaroscuro works well for this specific image, but any photographer could disagree and choose to edit it differently, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
Lastly, even though I said earlier that bumping up contrast/lowering brightness isn’t enough to achieve chiaroscuro on its own, I’ll still mention my quick method to reach the effect without local dodging and burning. It’s also a good way to see if a particular photo is a candidate for the chiaroscuro “look” or not. All you need to do, before making any other edits, is lower the photo’s “exposure” slider in Lightroom by 1-2 stops, and boost “lights” in the Tone Curve panel by about +40 to +60. It’s a starting point that gives your images darkness overall, with deep shadows, luminous highlights, and areas of texture even in the darkest parts of the image.
I hope this article helped you to learn more about chiaroscuro and maybe gave you some inspiration from the world of classic paintings. Real-world scenes usually prevent “perfect” chiaroscuro in photography like painters can achieve, but you can still push a photo closer in that direction with careful choice of subject and post-processing.
Personally, as a landscape photographer, I start to think about chiaroscuro any time I’m taking pictures under storm clouds with light still falling on the landscape. It’s the perfect opportunity to take dark, high-contrast photos that still highlight my subject and give it a sense of depth. But I’ve also found myself aiming for this look more and more with everyday black and white photos, which have more leeway for post-processing compared to a typical color image.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or additions to what I’ve talked about in this article! I’m not an art historian by any means and did my best to put chiaroscuro in the proper historical perspective, but I’d love to hear more if you have additional context. You can also see many more examples of paintings with chiaroscuro on the dedicated Wikipedia page.