Chiaroscuro | Taking Photography Lessons from Classic Painters
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Video: Chiaroscuro | Taking Photography Lessons from Classic Painters
In this video/article, we’re talking about a very important-yet-nuanced lighting technique called chiaroscuro lighting and what it means for your portrait photography. We actually touched on this topic back when we introduced “dark mode editing,” which you can revisit here. You can find dark mode editing and other techniques in our Mastering Lightroom course.
The chiaroscuro technique actually comes from the painting style associated with Rembrandt and other famous, classic painters who used and made this style popular. Essentially, these painters placed their subjects against a dark background to feature highlights on the face, particularly with a lighting pattern that features a triangle over one side of the subject’s face. One of the key components of editing in this style is being able to control highlights and shadows, as well as framing your subjects against darker backgrounds.
To better explain what I mean, I’m going to show several examples of chiaroscuro lighting in everyday situations, and I’m going to show you how they can dramatically change the quality of your images.
We’ll start with a portrait of my friends, Brooke and Barry. As you can see in the behind-the-scenes image above, we are standing in a parking lot in front of a store. The purple wall is just a column that’s been painted purple and the couple is standing and facing towards the light. As an example of chiaroscuro lighting, our subjects’ faces feature Rembrandt highlights and the couple stands out against the background, which is darker. We’ll also look at other typical scenes in which you can get this kind of lighting, but for now, we’ll focus on this image and what this setup allows you to do during the editing process.
The first decision you need to make is to choose a look to apply to the image. I used Visual Flow’s Crush Pack because I think it works well with that blue wall, but you can use any preset you like, including one you create (or have created) yourself. After applying the Crush preset, I decided to lower the exposure and contrast a bit before adding a radial burn.
In case you’re unfamiliar with radial burns, a radial burn is just a radial filter that you set to negative 0.5 exposure and drop around your subjects. The idea is to leave your subjects in the brighter area of the frame, which also helps draw more attention to them. For this image, I placed a radial burn over Brooke’s eye and pulled the cursor to the left while holding “Alt/Option” to lower the exposure. I adjusted the exposure of the radial burn to negative 1.27 and then raised the blacks just a touch.
When you stop to look at the changes to this point, you may notice that we’ve added a heavy vignette to the background, but you’ll also notice it doesn’t look like we’ve necessarily added that vignette. It looks natural because the background is naturally darker and we have a natural highlight on our subjects. This allows us to do simple dodging and burning very easily with large brushes while maintaining a very refined look. We’re basically using Rembrandt’s technique with that chiaroscuro look and applying it in the digital era. Because it’s a digital image, we have complete control over the actual tones of the image in post because our subjects’ skin tones are registering in a different area. If I pull the overall exposure down, I can actually control the brightness of skin tones through highlights and through the white point, which makes for very easy, dramatic, and painterly edits. After making a few adjustments to the highlights, whites, and contrast, we end up with an image you’d think was shot in a studio, but it’s a natural light portrait shot in a parking lot.
In this example, I was shooting in a large home. I placed the subject in front of a window while I stood quite a ways back.
For the edit, I started by straightening and cropping the image. You’ll notice that once again our subject is framed against a darker background, which gives us complete control.
If I were to flip this into black and white (“V”), I could flatten out overall contrast, lift the shadows and blacks, and actually lower the exposure. Remember, we can simply use highlights to control the skin tone. This, again, is what we call “Dark Mode” editing. We actually created a built-in preset in the Visual Flow Retouching Toolkit called “Dark Mode,” so you can select this preset and it dials in these baseline settings.
If you don’t have the Retouching Toolkit, refer to the settings in the image above and save these baseline settings. From there, you can tweak the various sliders to get to the right exposure for your particular image.
This is the exact same scene from the image in the previous example. Once again, you can see how the subject is framed against a darker background. This one’s a bit different, however. We shot this again on the same camera and lens, but it has a different feel. It serves as an example of chiaroscuro, but it’s less dramatic than the others, so I would edit this to have a brighter pastel vibe.
For the edit, I started by going to the bright area and pulling back the contrast a little bit. Then, I lowered the exposure for a brighter, more filmic look. This example works well to show that this sort of Rembrandt style of lighting doesn’t necessarily have to be used for dramatic effect. The subject is still placed against a darker background, we still have highlights along the face, and we still have the exact same control over skin tones because the skin tones are in the highlight range. I decided to go with a flatter, more commercial look, but the image still has that chiaroscuro refinement that gives the image a somewhat painterly look.
This image, too, was shot using only natural light. All I’ve done is position my subject near a large window while choosing an angle that results in the Rembrandt lighting pattern falling across her face. This technique works equally well in the studio with flash and on-location with a window, using natural light. We don’t often think about all the natural light opportunities that we can create without having to setup lights.
I actually shot this out with the Fstoppers crew in Puerto Rico, and had I submitted this for my image in the contest, I probably would have won. In this image, the subject is standing next to an open window. I positioned her to get the right light pattern, and the background somewhat dark. Because of those two things, I again have this control and freedom to create a painterly type of image during the editing process.
For this photo, I chose to apply the Soft Light preset from Visual Flow’s Modern Pack. I lowered the exposure a bit and added a radial burn around the subject’s face. Next, I flattened out the contrast and adjusted my highlights to control the brightness of the skin tones, particularly on the subject’s face. Finally, I adjusted the white point. You can see in the “after” image that it looks produced, painterly, and professional, as if we added our own flash, but it’s just natural light. We simply utilized the chiaroscuro technique.
We hope you enjoyed this article/video on chiaroscuro lighting and taking photography lessons from classic painters. I want you guys to get out and play with chiaroscuro. It is such a powerful technique from classic painters that you can use with your work to level up your portraits right away. If you’d like to dive deeper into a range of lighting techniques for the in-camera side, be sure to check out our Flash Photography Training System to explore flash photography, as well as our Engagement Photography 101 workshop to see what’s possible using only natural light. For editing your shots and adding the finishing touches, don’t miss our Mastering Lightroom course. All of these workshops and more are included as part of our Premium subscriptions.