Chiaroscuro lighting technique is the undeniable king when it comes to crafting memorable images, let's break down how you can use it.
We work in a 2-dimensional medium, but we still want to create the three-dimensional look. Well "look" no further than this time-tested method for accomplishing that goal. Chiaroscuro lighting.
Chiaroscuro is the use of contrast in light and shading across an entire image composition. It is a technique that creates a three-dimensional quality in images on a two-dimensional plane. Chiaroscuro lighting was developed by Leonardo Davinci, Caravaggio, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. It is a signature quality in the works of their Renaissance art movement but is also well known today for its role in defining the film noir sub-genre of movies(among others) through low-key photography.
Chiaroscuro Lighting in Film: A More Recent History Lesson
Long after Rembrandt and co. defined it. But still, before it was used to create the pools of darkness that slowly enveloped Michael Corleone and his soul in the Godfather films, Chiaroscuro lighting was pioneered in film during a movement called German Expressionism.
The sparse, harsh technique created a sense of literal darkness and would soon work it's way into American movies in prominent fashion with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Film noir was born shortly after that and the style became ingrained in our national psyche.
Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique and How It Works
There are lots of ways you can add depth to your shot -- you can place objects in the foreground and background, use a shallow depth of field, or employ the parallax effect. But chiaroscuro is one method you should know and use every time your shoot involves lighting.
This video by Jordy Vandeput explains the details of this lighting technique (it's more of a tenet really): how it works, how to light it, and how artists such as the great Vermeer used it in his own paintings.
In essence, this lighting technique seems simple enough -- use dimmer and brighter lights in opposing succession to create contrast (light/dark), however you'll soon find out, when handling such unwieldy things as lights, that it's true what they say: cinematography is basically painting with light -- and painting ain't no easy task.
Again, let's look back, since we're on the topic of painting, at the chiaroscuro lighting technique as employed during the Baroque period (1600s) in which Vermeer, as well as my boy Caravaggio, were busy churning out the famed tronie Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Taking of Christ respectively.
The reason I really enjoyed this video is because I'm a huge history nerd -- if you mix film techniques with any amount of art history, I'll go cuckoo bananas. (All Jordy had to do was mention Vermeer's name.) Yes, it's great to learn how to light a scene to create depth, but it's also interesting to learn where the technique came from and how it was used (and how it evolved) throughout history.
There are many different ways to approach recreating the Chiaroscuro look. The classic method is to light half of someone's face, and let the other half fall off into darkness. But there are varying degrees beyond that.
Do you want to set up a strong backlight, creating a sort of a low-key lighting halo effect? Obscuring the figures face in the process?
We referred to chiaroscuro as painting with light, but it's also a kind of writing with light. The image and frame itself become the story.
What part of the story do you wish to reveal with light in this moment of your story?
How do you create depth in your compositions? What's your favorite Vermeer/Caravaggio painting? Let us know in the comments below.