John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Chiaroscuro in Photography


chiaroscuro photograph

Don’t you just love that word?

chiaroscuro photograph

It’s Italian, literally meaning “light/dark.”

In the world of painting it refers to the use of tonal contrasts to create the impression of volume or form in the lighting of subjects. Some artists use it to describe very dramatic contrasts of brightness and shadow, as if a single, bright beam of light illuminates the scene, throwing some things into eye-catching highlights and others into mysterious deep shadows. Actually, the more official term for that effect is “tenebrism” - which doesn’t, unfortunately, sound as cool as “chiaroscuro.”

Our ancient feelings about light versus dark

The chiaroscuro image drives home the archetypal dynamic of darkness and light that has captivated the human mind throughout our long history. It activates the many meanings we attach to this dynamic duo: evil and good, earth and heaven, the hidden and the revealed.

Capturing chiaroscuro during the shot

Photographers also use such dramatic lighting effects. You can create it naturally by using a single strong light source falling on a subject in an otherwise dark environment. From a side angle, light the subject against a dark background. You can keep it simple by using a lamp or a stream of sunlight through the window, which is what I did in the two shots on the right. The light needs to be fairly bright and the shadows somewhat deep.

Creating chiaroscuro during post-processing

Other photographers create chiaroscuro in the post-processing of an image, as in this beach scene. If there wasn’t, when the shot was taken, a prominent light falling on the subject, with broad surrounding areas being dark, you can process the image to look like that, but in a way that doesn’t look quite natural. The lighting feels more surreal, sometimes even mystical, which adds to the drama and mystery.

In photographic terms, it’s a low key, high contrast image. Creating such images during post-processing isn’t too difficult. All you have to remember is “tilt to the left.”

For the beach shot, look in the lower right hand corner to see its histogram, which is a graph indicating the levels of tones in the image, with darker ones towards the left and brighter ones towards the right. In this shot you can see that almost all of the tones fall on the dark side of the graph, with just a barely visible thin line of tones trailing off into the highlights.

Some of the tones shifted to the left actually flatten out against the left side of the histogram, which means they “clipped” to total black. There are no details in that part of the image, just black. It’s the deep shadow side of the rocks in the beach scene. Some photographers do their best to avoid shadow clipping, because they want to preserve subtle details across the whole range of tones. Think about an Adam Ansel landscape. You won’t see a whole lot of total black like you do in this chiaroscuro style of photography. You’ll also see many more shades of grey than you do in chiaroscuro.

The thin line of tones trailing off to the right side of the histogram account for the white shirt of the subject, the breaking waves, the two boats, and the highlights on the rocks. Some of these highlights just barely clip to pure white. These areas are the POP of the image. The eye is drawn to the light.

The overall effect of these dramatic shadows and highlights on this rocky shore is of unusual sunlight coming from the upper right hand corner, illuminating the beach, making one side of the rocks sparkle, the man’s white shirt shine, the surf bubble, and the boats pop out against the waves - with the rest of the scene, mostly the hidden side of the rocks, cast into dark shadows The resulting lighting effect doesn’t seem quite natural, because it isn’t. That’s not how the beach actually looked. It’s a post-processed effect that conveys a more surreal feeling of drama, mystery, and power in the play of light and dark.

So here’s how you do it. If you don’t already use photo-editing tools for manipulating tones – like levels, curves, and sliders for altering shadows, midtones, highlights, and tonal ranges in between – then experiment with them. Keep an eye on that histogram. Start with the sliders for “shadows,” “fill,” and “blacks.” While you’re keeping an eye on how the histogram changes, move the sliders back and forth. Try to angle the histogram to the left, into the shadows. Try to keep that thinner line of tones trailing off to the right, into the highlights. You might need to play with the sliders for brightness, contrast, and highlights to get the approximate shape of the histogram. Variations on how the histogram rises and falls in that tilt to the left accounts for the unique different character of particular image, but keep that overall angle pitched to the left, with a nice measure of pure black.

Of course, this chiaroscuro effect will only work well with some images – ones in which there are a few well-lite areas that will then pop as meaningful subjects after the processing, while larger areas of the image turn into those dark, even totally black shadows.

As always, a variety of other factors make a big difference between a good and a fantastic chiaroscuro image. From a technical point of view, did the photographer apply other methods to enhance the image – like masking particular areas to emphasize their darkness or lightness, selecting enhancing texture, and blur effects to create smoothness and movement (as in mystically fluid clouds and water, which is a popular effect in chiaroscuro landscapes)?

From a psychological and artistic point of view, do these extra post-processing strategies, along with subject matter and composition, activate the feelings, memories, and meanings we attach to the play of dark and light? Do we sense the ancient energy of their opposition and marriage?


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Image Shaping (post-processing)
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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche