Tutorial: Chiaroscuro Lighting

Chiaroscuro (from the Italian for light and dark) is a simple but very effective lighting approach that has been used by painters for centuries.   It creates the closest thing we can get to a 3-D image in a 2 -D medium, and of course it can also be combined with other lighting techniques and with selective focus.

chiascuroBasically, it just involves lighting one side of the subject only, and lighting the opposite side of the background only, so that we have the light side of the subject against the dark side of the background, and vice versa. So, in principle, it’s as simple as the computer graphic on the left.

We often think of Chiaroscuro as a studio photography tool but any form of lighting, including daylight, can be used – it is a lighting approach rather than a specific technique, and we can use it for a wide range of subjects, from portraits to product shots to artistic still life.

Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Cottle

Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Cottle


As with all other subjects and techniques that involve lighting both the foreground and background, these are separate subjects that need to be lit separately and it becomes much easier to do this when there is enough distance between foreground (front subject) and background (rear subject).

Let’s start with the background. As with everything photographic, there are a lot of different ways of achieving this effect, but you need to start off with the right sort of background. In theory, the background can be anything you like, but to keep it simple I used a plain grey paper background. I chose grey because it’s the most versatile background shade to have for this purpose – black requires too much lighting power, white makes it virtually impossible to achieve dark grey or black and I didn’t want a coloured background for this.

One method that works is to use a square or rectangular softbox, close to the background and at a fairly acute angle to it so that the lighting on the background goes from black to white (or from dark to light).  If you use a softbox for this then it will need to be one that has the front diffuser deeply recessed, otherwise it just won’t work, because the light will go where you don’t want it to as well as where you do want it to… even if your softbox has a deeply recessed front diffuser, the fall-off of light will be gradual.  If that’s what you want then fine, if you want a much more dramatic effect, just remove the front diffuser. And, on the subject of angles, it helps a lot to angle the background fairly sharply, this helps to compress the fall off of light into a shorter distance.

However new and good your background paper roll may be, you’re likely to get some lack of evenness in the lighting, because it won’t be completely flat and because the light is striking the background at an angle. Because of this, it’s a good idea to shoot from as much distance as possible and with your subject well away from the background, and to use a large aperture – this will help because the background will then be out of focus. As I said earlier, the background and the subject are lit separately and are two separate subjects, and because of this I light just the background first.

Another method is to use a standard reflector fitted to a flash head, and hidden behind the front subject. Simply place a flag such as a sheet of card, paper or Cinefoil, very close to the standard reflector, this will act as a flag. This can work well provided that the subject is large enough to hide the flash head and flag from view, which will otherwise appear in the shot.

And another popular method is to use a barn door set, again hidden behind your front subject, and you may or may not want to tape a piece of paper, card or Cinefoil to the barn door that’s doing the work, to end up with a sharper, less graduated fall off of light.

And of course, the background doesn’t have to be lit left/right, it can be lit top/bottom, or diagonal, it’s entirely up to you.



And when the background has been taken care of, we move to the subject, in this case we have a model wearing military uniform. Just about any kind of lighting can be used on the subject, provided that it is properly controlled to light only the part of the subject that is against the dark background, we don’t want light to spill onto the part that is against the light background.

For this shot, I used one of our strip softboxes, fitted with a honeycomb to control the light.  Inevitably, this produced hard lighting, which is exactly what I wanted for this shot of a young man dressed literally to kill… The hard light, skimming across his body, emphasises the texture on his uniform as well as on his face. Many people think of Chiaroscuro in terms of monochrome, and here is the same shot convered to monochrome, but there are no rules about it.

And of course we can colour the background if we want to, using lighting gels. We’ll go into this in our next tutorial.