October 29, 2018

Chiaroscuro Lighting: How to Create the Stunning Look In Your Images

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 Definition

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 Taking of Christ (Caravaggio, c. 1602))

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.     

Your Comment

17 Comments

Constantly trying to re-create this old school chiaroscuro lighting in my work! Good to see it broken down to its core. Might have been clearer with a darker background though?

I used this lighting in one of my music videos through the use of a laptop screen (hid an LED next to it) as the key light, and a streetlamp outside (massive softbox on a giant stand) to create the fill and extra depth:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbyoAUsbbhw#t=0m33s

December 1, 2015 at 5:45AM

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J.Eiffel
Director/DOP/Editor @ Eiffel
74

Been trying to recreate this old school chiaroscuro technique with all my work recently. Good to see it broken down to it's core! Might have been clearer with a darker background though?

I tried to recreate the effect in this music video. I used a laptop screen (with a LED hidden next to it) for the key light, and a street lamp (softbox on a massive stand) as the fill to create extra depth.

You can see the setup at this timestamp:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbyoAUsbbhw#t=00m33s

December 1, 2015 at 6:00AM

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J.Eiffel
Director/DOP/Editor @ Eiffel
74

That was actually interesting, it's good to see how easy a two light LED setup can change a scene from looking like a Primary school media production to a cinematic composition.
I'm a fan of "The Conversion of St Paul" by Caravaggio because it used the unique receding of colour (red bottom left, blacks top right) to add depth, which Would be good to take on in film.

December 1, 2015 at 6:43AM, Edited December 1, 6:51AM

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Ben Thompson
DoP / Indie Film maker / Editor
74

This is lighting like Kenneth Vermeer, the Dutch goalkeeper who plays for Feyenoord... right?

December 1, 2015 at 1:17PM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3389

Sorry, that was a bit negative... If you want something that looks more like the Vermeer, you need to look at the quality of the light.

Vermeer favours off-side 'north' lighting - it's soft light from a large, indirect light source (rather than direct sunlight, or in this case an LED panel 2 feet away). Bounce those LEDs into a large piece of foam core (for instance) or run them through some form of diffusion in a frame (or both - through the diffusion, then off the foam core) and you'll create a much larger, softer light source that will give you better modelling across the subject's face.

In the video, you've got an enormous amount of light coming from behind camera through the windows and filling in those shadows you want on the near side of the subject's face. The light is also bouncing off all the white walls in the room. Tape bin bags over the windows, and support this with negative fill - black foam core / black sheets / anything that can cut out reflected light, mounted on a stand near her face. This willl really deepen the shadows on that side of the face, and give you the look you're looking for.

None of these things are expensive or particularly difficult - if you're in a fix you can bounce the key off a wall, off newspapers, through some fabric - anything to make the source softer (and likewise come up with DIY solutions for the negative fill).

Rembrandt and Caravaggio - different again. Look at their paintings - Vermeer's lighting style is much softer, more graduated. Rembrandt favours light from behind/elevated (behind camera, in our case)...

December 1, 2015 at 7:11PM, Edited December 1, 7:11PM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3389

*By 'behind' meaning behind the artist.

December 2, 2015 at 6:29AM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3389

Hey Alex

I'm the creator of the video. I understand your comment and recieved more reactions like these. However, I'd like to talk a bit of my background. I host videos on Youtube for students, beginners and hobbists. All my videos cover very basic techniques.

The meaning behind this videos was to show my viewers that they can achieve bigger depth with one single light and explain them why it adds more depth.

Anyhow, I appreciate your comment and other critic comments. It's the first time my content was exposed to higher professionals and I've learned a lot from it. This gives me new insights on how to format and explain my content.

I believe Renée wrote a great article with the additional information.

Best,
Jordy

December 2, 2015 at 10:44AM, Edited December 2, 10:47AM

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Jordy Vandeput
Youtuber
105

Jordy, I appreciate your desire to teach beginners and to keep it simple. I believe that the principles you were teaching were correct in theory. However, I have a simple suggestion (using one less light) that might improve the lighting setup that you were demonstrating and create more Vermeer like contrast. The window with plastic has a beautiful soft quality, it's just too flat on the subject's face and the white walls. Stretch and hang a large piece of opaque or mostly opaque material such as a dark bed sheet or black plastic between 2 light stands. On a pro set, duviteen cloth or B&W foam core would be hung using C stands. Ideally, the dimensions of this material should be close to the same size as the window. Next place the cloth parallel to the window and close to the subject as possible without entering the camera frame. Now, "hinge" the left stand back toward the window (counter-clock rotation) leaving the right stand in place. This will allow more window light to hit the subject on the camera left side of her face (her R side). You can adjust the desired amount of contrast on the camera R (her L) side of the face. You can achieve much better contrast modeling on the subject this way than adding a light that isn't very soft. You may need to increase the exposure slightly to compensate for some light loss. This is similar to Alex's suggestion. However, blocking light at the window itself may lose too much key light on the subject and be more difficult to fine adjust the level of contrast. When cutting soft light it's necessary to move flag away from the source. Bringing the giant flag closer to the subject will also create a very nice gradation on the back wall. The R side of the back wall will "fall off gradually become fairly dark. The L side of the wall will be darker than it was. It was a great idea to open up the door into the hallway to create more depth. But now that you have less light in the main room, you don't need to hit the hallway wall with direct light in order to get brighter contrast depth. Try aiming the light at the ceiling or bounce off the opposite wall for a more natural soft light pattern. The overall result will be more shades of gray and more true "chiaroscuro" alternating patterns. To achieve more contrast in any lighting situation, it's best to first consider where light can be removed - before adding a light.

December 3, 2015 at 9:54PM

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Randolph Sellars
Director of Photography
328

Great comment! I totally agree with your set up ( by not totally hiding the source of light from the window) as the natural light from outside also serve the purpose of filling shadows with a bit of light for the rest of the scene (by bouncing on the white ceiling) as it is not a good idea to shoot with shadows as dark as we see on the painting. I always keep the scene with less contrast than desired to get less noise on the video and more control in post production. Softening the key light here with 2 layers of a modifier (tracing paper hold by C47 is a budget one) an positioning it closer to the subject would have been enough to avoid the distracting hot spot on the forehead.

October 30, 2018 at 3:42AM

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Franc Sanka
Director of Photography / Film and Photography Teacher
180

What I see is that indie film edutainment is overdigesting it self. The originnal information that once came out from the actual industry pros is now retold and reinterpreted dozens of times by different people.

December 2, 2015 at 3:15PM, Edited December 2, 3:15PM

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Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio
1089

Not only that, then don't actually put into practice what they are preaching!

December 2, 2015 at 6:01PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1701

I get the impression that a lot of this is from students who need a presentation credit? Or just video blog types who need to raise their profile?

December 6, 2015 at 3:33AM, Edited December 6, 3:35AM

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Good lord! Please don't use Vermeer unless you actually light something that equals his painting. Also do you have to present a lighting tutorial like a f****** kids programme. Try to treat people like adults.

December 2, 2015 at 5:08PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1701

That's a pretty high bar that eliminates nearly everybody. I've been shooting for 35 years and I never achieved any image that I considered equal to Vermeer or Caravaggio. I'll give Jordy credit for getting the principle right - even if his execution could be improved.

December 3, 2015 at 10:17PM

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Randolph Sellars
Director of Photography
328

That did not look like chiaroscuro at all. More like chiaroscuro shot flat :-p

The remark about the hallway in the background having the same exposure as the wall was also rather rediculous as it was a lot closer to black than the 'dark' wall. With the light in the hallway just looked nicer... and indeed reminded of the technique a lot of masters from the Dutch Golden Age used.

This is just a good example about how to use 1 light to make it look more professional. Not really a class in Vermeer lighting (Renée!); it is missing the follow up steps to make it so.

December 4, 2015 at 5:25PM, Edited December 4, 5:34PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8753

This video is the worst example of a cinematic light.

December 5, 2015 at 12:38PM

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Norbert F
DOP
154

My favorite example of this style of lighting is definitely how it was used in NBC's Hannibal. The inspiration for the look for the show was Caravaggio's paintings. There isn't a bad frame in 3 seasons of that show.

October 30, 2018 at 4:37PM

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Darrell Ayer
Director of Photography
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