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What Is Stark Lighting?

Stark lighting gives high contrast between light and shadow.
Low Key Smile image by Frenk_Danielle Kaufmann from <a href='http://www.fotolia.com'>Fotolia.com</a>

Stark lighting is a lighting technique used in film, photography and occasionally theater performances. "Stark" means strong or high contrast, and can also mean desolate, according to Merriam-Webster. Stark lighting is simply strong, high-contrast lighting that gives an isolated or desolate feel to the subject being viewed, filmed or photographed. The technique is not recommended for home lighting applications because it uses heavy shadows, which are not good for daily tasks. Instead, it is used for artistic effect in the visual and performing arts.

How It Works

Stark lighting in film and photography is usually accomplished by using a single light source in a darkened room. The subject is lit by a hard (non-diffused) light, usually from an angle off to one side, although any angle can be used. In theater and some film applications, multiple light sources may be used so a larger area of the stage is covered. This reduces some of the shadow, but the lighting is still generally coming from a single direction, allowing deep shadows to remain.


In film, the genre known as "film noir" is a prime example of stark lighting. In photography, artistic portraits in black and white, particularly those that include shadows as an integral part of the photograph, use stark lighting.


Nearly any light source can be used to achieve stark lighting, depending on the size of the subject being lit. Even the sun can be used in certain controlled circumstances, such as a black and white photograph in which the subject is surrounded by black and the sunlight is bounced off of a reflector to maintain control over it. The necessary lighting element in any circumstance is control--as long as the light comes from a limited angle to allow for shadows, stark lighting can be achieved.


Stark lighting creates a dramatic effect, causing the viewer to see more depth in the object due to the shadows that are created. This lighting technique also creates a sense of mystery by limiting the light source to only parts of a subject. The shadows over the rest of the subject make the viewer curious about what is hidden.


In photography and film, stark lighting is also often referred to as low key lighting. In theater, a variation of stark lighting, with color added to the lights instead of using a harsh white light, is often used during dance performances to add dimension to the dancers' bodies. This is often referred to as side lighting, since the lights are placed at the sides of the stage, or sometimes simply called dance lighting.

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