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How to Achieve Artistic Chiaroscuro Lighting in Photography

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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Chiaroscuro is a dramatic lighting technique that can help you take outstanding portraits. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or don’t own professional camera equipment.
You can still achieve the chiaroscuro lighting effect you’re after.
Here’s how.

Understanding Chiaroscuro Lighting

Atmospheric portrait of a male model shot with chiaroscuro lighting
Using a single light will highlight very specific parts of your model’s face and create a moody atmosphere.

Chiaroscuro, also known as clair-obscur, came into being during the Renaissance period. Painters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio used it to create the illusion of light and depth. Today’s painters, photographers, and cinematographers all use this technique in a similar way.
Chiaroscuro lighting is all about bold contrasts and emotions. This makes it the ideal creative playground for portrait photographers. It’s also loved by food, still life, and fine art photographers.
In Italian, chiaroscuro means “light” and “dark.” By combining a strong light source with a lot of shadows, you can create striking portraits that look like paintings.

Chiaroscuro Lighting Tips

The dramatic effect of chiaroscuro lighting isn’t difficult to achieve. Even if you don’t own professional lighting setup.
Here are a few technical tips you should keep in mind before you start shooting.

Natural Light vs. Artificial Light

Atmospheric portrait of a female model holding her hair, shot with chiaroscuro lighting
Natural light might highlight certain objects in the background. You can easily paint over them in Photoshop or Lightroom to make your composition look tidier.

In photography, chiaroscuro lighting is often associated with professional studio lights. But you can also achieve it with the help of natural light or simple artificial light sources.
Window light is the most accessible source of natural light for chiaroscuro portraits. With the right exposure, you’ll be able to darken any distractions in the background. This will help you put the spotlight on your model.
Make sure you’re taking photos in a room where the window is the only source of light. This will help you create high contrasts.
You can also use small sources of light in the dark. For example, you can take photos of your model holding a candle, lighter, or a torch at night. If you want your photos to have even more depth, you can take photos after the sun has set.
When it comes to large or professional lighting equipment, make sure you use one light source only. And light your subject horizontally. This will allow you to work with different gradients.
If you light your model directly, you won’t be able to create fading highlights and shadows that. And these are essential for chiaroscuro photography.

Choosing (and Making) the Right Backdrops

Atmospheric portrait of a male model shot with chiaroscuro lighting
Most chiaroscuro portraits have black or drak backgrounds. But these don’t have to be professional or expensive.
If you’re on a budget, you can buy a small black backdrop for as little as £10. Make sure your model can freely move in front of that backdrop. You can fill the empty spaces in Photoshop using the brush tool.
If you’re a fan of DIY projects, you can create your own backdrop using black paint and a piece of cardboard. You can also paint over other materials if you want to add more texture to your background.

Black & White Chiaroscuro Photography

Atmospheric portrait of a female model shot with chiaroscuro lighting
Chiaroscuro works great with black and white portrait photography. It will add even more depth to your portraits. It’ll emphasise the textures of your model’s body (such as freckles, clothing wrinkles, and expressions). And it will make it easy for you to work with backgrounds that aren’t pure black.
A dark green backdrop might not look that great in a colored chiaroscuro portrait. But you can convert it to black & white in your editing program. Then you’ll be able to create that unique black background effect.

Chiaroscuro Lighting Ideas

There’s a lot you can do with a single source of light. Here are a few ideas to inspire you.

Take Self-Portraits

Atmospheric self portrait of a female with long hair
I used a small black reflector case and natural window light to take this photo. The original photo was vertical, so I simply expanded the composition and painted the empty bits black.

It can be difficult to make self-portraits look both natural and original. Thanks to the simplicity of chiaroscuro lighting, you can take fantastic photos of yourself without breaking a sweat. All you have to do is set up your lights and pose in front of your backdrop.
To make this process even easier, use a tripod, a remote, and a stool. A tripod will prevent your camera from falling, while a remote will help you take photos from a distance. And a stool will keep you comfortable as you pose.

Work With Unusual Angles

Atmospheric portrait of a male model shot with chiaroscuro lighting
When you take photos of people, you might be tempted to keep their eyes in focus and their faces visible all the time. These techniques will help you take classic portraits. But they won’t challenge you in original ways.
If you want to experiment with silhouettes, mysterious atmospheres, and eerie compositions, break the rules. Focus on other parts of your model’s face.
For example, you can ask your model to turn their face away from your light source so that only their hair is visible.

Experiment with Expressions

Atmospheric portrait of a smiling male model against black background
To capture genuine emotions, make sure your model feels comfortable in your presence. To achieve this, you can ask them to bring a friend or get to know them before your shoot.

Chiaroscuro lighting is ideal for expressive portraits. As you shoot, make sure your model isn’t always posing or expressing themselves in the same way.
Don’t be afraid of making your model laugh or be silly in front of the camera. Many chiaroscuro portraits are serious, that’s true. But this shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with happier emotions using the same lighting techniques.

Photograph Multiple Models (They Don’t Have to Be Humans!)

Atmospheric portrait of a female model holding a brown cat
This is a self-portrait that I took with my cat. This is the only photo (out of around 100) in which she’s looking directly at the camera. Keep this in mind as you take photos of your model and their pet. With the right amount of patience, you’ll be able to take the perfect chiaroscuro photo.

Photographing more than one model will make it easier for you to take genuine portraits. Your model will be more relaxed, and more likely to act natural in front of the camera.
Your second model doesn’t have to be a human. If you want to get better at pet photography, include animals in your chiaroscuro portraits.

Conclusion: Chiaroscuro Lighting

Atmospheric portrait of a female model
The chiaroscuro lighting effect is open to all kinds of photographers. You don’t need to own expensive equipment or have a fancy studio. And you definitely don’t need to hire professional models to take striking cinematic photos.
I encourage you to practice chiaroscuro lighting by taking photos of yourself and people you know first. After that, move on to professional models, animals, and other genres of photography.
This will help you master the chiaroscuro lighting technique and take brilliant photos at the same time.
For more great photography lighting tips, check our posts on using a rim light or a ttl flash!