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The Basics of Chiaroscuro Lighting

The Basics of Chiaroscuro Lighting

by Michael Sewell

Chiaroscuro is a high-contrast lighting technique that utilises a low-key lighting setup to achieve contrast between the subject and a dark background. Read on to find out more, and discover how you could learn this technique (and more) for free at our upcoming TFC workshops.


This is Deadpool, a long-time friend who often steps in as a 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 regard to cosplayers and portraiture. Cosplayers make superb models because their costumes incorporate textures 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.

For this effect, 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.

The term chiaroscuro originated in painting. 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 in my dead pool shot for emphasis.

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

In the Deadpool shoot I went with a cross-lighting setup, paying careful attention to help shape the face, enhancing texture, shape and form. This was achieved using two honeycombed Phottix Raja strip softboxes with an ELB 500 TTL on either side.

The frame left ELB 500 TTL was placed fairly well back from the model, 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 acting as our 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 a Chiaroscuro setup for the top image is very simple, and only involves a little adjustment. 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 on the costume. As the light 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 Colorama background paper and moved it closer 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 on the background light 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

Below is another example of the Chiaroscuro technique. 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. Very, very simple, but it does present an image with impact.

Learn More at a FREE TFC Workshop this November!

Join us, and professional commercial photographer Michael Sewell, on 8th November (TFC Birmingham), 15th November (TFC London) or 22nd November (TFC Leeds) for an exclusive Elinchrom lighting launch event. 

Tickets are free, but are limited. Get your free ticket HERE

On the day you will you have exclusive access to something new from Elinchrom, but you’ll also have the opportunity to put an array of Elinchrom gear through its paces and learn professional lighting techniques with our portrait, automotive and food setups. So, if you’re looking to improve your photography skills and boost your creativity, this workshop is for you.

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