The Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique

By Alex Burke ; Updated September 15, 2017

Chiaroscuro lighting emphasizes the contrast of light and dark to give an illusion of depth and to create volume. The term “chiaroscuro” was coined during the Renaissance to describe its use by painters—“chiaro” meaning light and “scuro” meaning dark. The concept is the same whether the artist is a photographer, a painter, or a lighting consultant for theater or film—light is used to create bold contrast.

Plan the Shoot

Know what is desired as an outcome before attempting to use chiaroscuro lighting. Decide what details are important in the final outcome and what “atmosphere” you want to convey. For example, a realistic representation of an apple sitting on a kitchen counter will not need the dramatic effects of chiaroscuro techniques to be conveyed correctly. Move the apple into a still life requiring drama, such as a photo for a silversmith who wants to sell an ornate serving bowl, and the chiaroscuro technique can be used to advantage. In this particular instance, create the chiaroscuro lighting by blocking or dramatically reducing light to one side of the bowl and highlighting the other. A windowless studio or room is a good place for controlling chiaroscuro lighting.

Observe and Arrange

Watch the play of light on the subject or object of a photograph or painting. Move the light or reposition the subject to obtain the modeling and shaping that is desired. Observe the light in a chosen outdoor location prior to setting up a photo shoot or still life. Spend time noting the changes throughout a particular time period for a location and take advantage of the natural interplay between sunlight and shadows cast by architecture, sculpture or other objects not part of the actual photograph. Create similar chiaroscuro lighting in a studio setting by using patterned screens designed to block the light. Place the screens in front of a focusing spot to throw the pattern across the subject. Screens can be made by cutting patterns out of black mat board or screen printing images (leaf patterns, window panes) in black on acetate. Chimera Lighting makes a patterned screen product called “Window Patterns” that helps photographers create the chiaroscuro lighting technique.

Light the Subject

Create chiaroscuro easily by lighting from one side and positioning the model at an angle to the light source. Have the model turn and move until the right contrast is found, or keep the model still and move the lighting around until the correct place is found to mount the lamp. Each model or subject will bring its own proportions and dimensions to the logistics of the chiaroscuro lighting technique. There will not be a standard height or location to place the lighting, only a place to begin—a single light source or a way to block light to create shadow.

About the Author

Alex Burke holds a degree in environmental design and a Master of Arts in information management. She's worked as a licensed interior designer, artist, database administrator and nightclub manager. A perpetual student, Burke writes Web content on a variety of topics, including art, interior design, database design, culture, health and business.