Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique

January 10th, 2023

Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique

Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique

This is Deadpool, a long time friend who often steps in as model when asked politely. On this occasion, Deadpool was modelling for a lighting course held at The Flash Centre in London.

The course started with the basics, gradually progressing to demonstrate various lighting styles with regards to cosplayers and portraiture. Cosplayers make superb models, because their costumes incorporate texture and shapes not often seen in ordinary clothing. The technique used for the above image is known as Chiaroscuro, taken from the Italian for Light and Dark.

Basically, you light across your subject in one direction, and here we lit the background in the reverse direction. Ideally, the subject should go to black on the unlit side, and the same for the background. The subject’s shape, although black on the unlit side, is clearly defined because of the lit background.

This technique was used to very good effect to promote Batman in the film Batman Vs Superman, along with earlier incarnations of the batman character.

Having said that, the definition has become somewhat diluted over the years, particularly after the advent of digital and especially in the last decade. I have seen an increasing reference to Chiaroscuro lighting which has shown a strongly lit subject, and the background allowed to fall to black. I have to assume they mean the contrast between subject and background, which doesn’t really hold true to the original concept.

Incidentally, with painting, which is where the term originated, it was a technique that brought together very strong contrasts of light and dark within an image to give an impression of shape and volume.
Rembrandt and Da Vinci used the technique frequently. Rembrandt later softened his style, although the “Rembrandt portrait lighting” is still reminiscent of his earlier approach.

In photography, it developed to literally mean contrasting light and dark of the subject and background, again to provide impact and bring the subject forward. The current shift in interpretation is more towards the original definition held by the artists who painted with this technique, so the background has become less relevant to the technique, although I wanted to include the background here for emphasis.

Anyway, less of the history and more of the lighting…

I’d basically already gone through the use of a cross lighting setup, paying careful attention to help shape a face, enhancing texture, shape and form. This had been done using two honeycombed Phottix Raja stripboxes with ELB500 on either side.

cosplayer photography

The frame left ELB500 was placed fairly well back, so as to create a rim light. The output was set to 5.0 (Equivalent to 200Ws). The second light was placed frame right, and was basically acting as key light. Output was a little lower as it was closer to Deadpool. It was set to an output of 4.0 (Equivalent to 100Ws).
The camera settings were 1/160th sec f4 ISO200

Switching from the above setup to make it it a Chiaroscuro setup for the top image is very simple, and only involves the adjustment of right light. I took the frame left accent light and brought it a little forward, allowing the light to come further across Deadpool’s face, not only providing more detail and shape, but also highlighting the texture to the costume. As the lightstand was now a little closer, I turned the output down to 4.0 (Equivalent to 100Ws).

I then turned the frame right stripbox to face the background, and moved it closer to the paper too. This meant the light would illuminate the paper frame right, and fall off to black towards frame left. Deadpool would be lit from frame left, with his other side falling to shadow. His dark outline would be defined by the lit background behind him. The output was turned down to 2.0 (Equivalent to 25Ws).

The camera settings were 1/160th sec f4 ISO200

The image below is the behind the scenes (BTS) image

bts cosplayer shoot

I was asked to create an image for a Men’s Mental Health Clinic. The brief was quite specific, insofar as the image had to get across a strong feeling of stress and isolation in the subject. I chose to go with a very harsh Chiaroscuro technique, with the following result

emotional portrait

Very, very simple, but it does present an image with impact.

My photography portfolio can be found here.