Chiaroscuro is borrowed from the Italian. It comes from two words, 'chiaro' (clear) and 'oscuro' (obscured), though it is normally (and very unsatisfactorily) translated as 'light and shadow'. It originated as a characteristic style of painting that relies on dramatic contrasts of light and shade. It evolved rapidly in the 17th century: Caravaggio (1573-1610) is normally held up as the first master to use it; Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) further developed the technique, and gave his name to the style when used in photography ('Rembrandt lighting'); and Wright of Derby (Joseph Wright, 1734-1797) arguably took it further than anyone else.

Sophie as revolutionary

A very simple example of chiaroscuro, with a single subject and a single light source. Roger shot this on a low-contrast daylight-type film (Fuji Astia) with a 70-210/2.8 Sigma Apo zoom on a Nikon F. As we shall see later, the words 'low contrast film' are important.

The use of tungsten light has made for a very warm picture, but this is commonplace in both painted and photographed chiaroscuro because, by definition, the light source must be directional and the background must not be overly well illuminated. Artificial lighting meets these requirements. Strong chiaroscuro rarely suits young subjects -- Sophie was about 13 here -- because few have enough character to carry it off. Sophie is an exception.


sophie che


William Mortensen made strenuous efforts to contrast chiaroscuro with notan, a word borrowed from the Japanese which refers to a flat, graphic style of representation -- such as, for example, a Japanese wood-block print -- but it is disputable whether true notan exists in any but the tiniest percentage of photographs, simply because it effectively requires absolutely flat, even lighting from the direction of the camera. Flash might seem to provide this, but the fall-off with distance means that it is not flat for deep subjects, and for shallow subjects, there is always the risk of shadows on the background. Also, traditional Japanese art makes use of only the perspective of receding planes and atmospheric perspective. Vanishing-point perspective, which is almost invariably present in photographs, destroys the effect of notan.


kunming sausage shop


Sausage and dried meat factory, Kunming

Except under very carefully controlled lighting, this is probably as close as you get to notan in normal photography: a flat subject, under flat lighting (overcast daylight). Even here, there is a degree of chiaroscuro, as the upper, fresher sausages throw shadows onto the older, drier ones. Roger used his Leica MP with 35/1.4 Summilux and Kodak Elite Chrome 100EBX for this shot.

Perhaps the most important thing in understanding chiaroscuro is ridding oneself of the idea that it means 'light and shade'. To be sure, light and shade are the tools used to create chiaroscuro, but they are not chiaroscuro itself. Chiaroscuro means that the subjects to which the painter or photographer wants to draw attention are clear (chiaro) while the background -- or to be more precise, the unimportant parts of the background -- are obscured or in shadow (oscuro).


portrait cl



It is disputable whether this is chiaroscuro or not. Yes, it makes use of light and shade, and the subject is indeed spotlit; but the shadow of his head is a part of the portrait, not a mere background. Any attempt to analyze a picture in words must always end up with 'It depends on what you mean by... Roger used a Mamiya RB67 and 150mm soft-focus lens to shoot this on Kodak EPR (it was a long tine ago). A sharper lens might have worked better.



Part of the appeal of Caravaggio-style chiaroscuro is the very strong modeling that is almost inevitably inherent in the use of highly directional light sources. As already noted, Wright of Derby was probably the greatest master of this; Rembrandt is deservedly better known, but arguably for composition and content rather than pure chiaroscuro.


Riverside walk, the Thames

Without question, this picture makes very strong use of light and shade: in fact, there is not much to it except light (with a visual pun included) and shadow. On the other hand, you would be pushing the definition of 'chiaroscuro' to (and beyond) its limits if you tried to apply the term here. Photography is by definition the use of light and shade, so chiaroscuro has to be reserved for a particular, dramatic way of using light to call attention to parts of the subject while 'losing' (or indeed obscuring) others.

This is another of Roger's pictures, shot (like the pub below) digitally with the Leica M8 and the 15/4.5 Voigtlander Ultra-Wide-Heliar, ISO 160 equivalent. The 1.33 times magnification factor made the 15mm the equivalent of a 20mm lens




city silhouette


It is the near-impossibility of losing all modelling, except with flat subjects or under very carefully controlled lighting, that renders the value of comparisons of chiaroscuro and notan extremely modest

Couple, Kezmarok

Here we can see that 'notan' is not necessarily the antithesis of 'chiaroscuro'. The lighting here is very flat indeed -- overcast daylight, slightly warmed up in Adobe Photoshop, though an 81-series filter would have been just as good -- but there is still quite a lot of modeling, especially the 'limb effect' described in the (paid) module on shooting white-on-white.


It may seem that we are devoting disproportionately much time in this module to what is not chiaroscuro, rather than what is, but this is because 'chiaroscuro' is one of those terms that is often tossed around without a great deal of thought, often by people who have read the 'light and shadow' definition and therefore assume that all modeling is the result of chiaroscuro. Well, so it is -- if you want to define chiaroscuro that way.


brick lane


Pub, Brick Lane, London

This is what most people understand by chiaroscuro, though it is a complex use of it with multiple light sources visible in shot. Also, some of the highlights are 'blown', including most notably the forehead of the man on the left. Most classical chiaroscuro does not have the light sources in shot, though painters have the advantage that they do not have to cope with a limited recording range in the same way that photographers do; cf. Joseph Wright's picture of two boys playing with an illuminated bladder, which is indeed 'in shot'. Roger shot this with a Leica M8 and 15/4.5 Ultra-Wide-Heliar. ISO was set to 2,500 and the camera was aimed without a viewfinder. The picture has been very slightly cropped: this is between 80 and 90 per cent of the image area, after 'losing' a little on the left and on the bottom.

Earlier in the module, we said that low-contrast film was an important factor in the opening portrait of Sophie. This is because the human eye can adapt to a brightness range far greater than can be handled by either transparency films or any digital sensor that is not being used in 'RAW' or 'DNG' (digital negative) mode -- and RAW and DNG may still be pushing your luck too far. Even a brightness range that looks very modest to the human eye can result in 'blown' (pure white) highlights and 'blocked up' (pure black) shadows, though the latter are likely to be much less of a problem in chiaroscuro shots.


Negative film, whether black and white or colour, has a much wider capture range and can also stand a modicum of deliberately generous exposure when you are not sure about capturing shadow detail. You are unlikely to see the advantages of generous exposure in most machine prints -- often, they will just 'blow' the highlights -- but if you do your own printing (whether 'wet' or via scanning), and dodge and burn your pictures, you should most certainly see the difference.


Yes, it's chiaroscuro, but it's also a classic example of incompetent lighting, and of using a film with too short a recording range. The highlight on Dennis's forehead is 'blown' and his arms appear to have dropped off. A Polaroid test shot or (nowadays) a digital preview would have solved the problems but Roger shot this (on a Mamiya RB67, lens forgotten, Kodak EPR film) in the 1970s. It's still quite a powerful shot, but it is grievously let down by its technical shortcomings.




frosty grass


Frosty grass

This is arguably as close as you can easily get to classical Chinese or Japanese brush-painting, and well illustrates the limited usefulness of applying technical terms (and concepts) that are borrowed from another style of art entirely. Regardless of the homage paid to brush painting, there is still a degree of roundness on the leaves and stem that owes a great deal more to realism than to formalism; and brush painting is nothing if not formalized. Roger used a 135/2.8 Tele-Elmar on a Leica M8, working at full aperture, to isolate this stem of grass -- but still there is some variation of tone in the background, whereas with a painting it would be plain white paper.


s/b bridge

Bridge, South Bank of the Thames

This could have demonstrated chiaroscuro, if Roger had used the triangle of light to spotlight something interesting, but as it is, the effect is far more 'notan'. The shapes are flat and graphic: it is only because we know that the subject has depth (principally because of perspective of scale) that we do not read it much more graphically. Roger used the Leica M8 and 15/4.5 Ultra-Wide-Heliar, probably at the equivalent of ISO 160 (the minimum available on the M8) though to be honest he has forgotten.



Whenever you set out to make conscious use of chiaroscuro, you have to ask yourself whether you are really using it, and how effectively you are using it. Or maybe it's better to forget the word and the preconceptions, and concentrate on the picture. Words are only a tool for analyzing a picture, and an imperfect tool at that. This does not mean that you should give up all attempt at analysis: just that if you are faced with a choice between putting your thoughts into words, and putting them into pictures, it is probably a good idea to put them into pictures first and leave the words for later (if ever). 


Chiaroscuro can conceal as well as revealing. In the picture at the beginning of the module, Sophie is strong, confident, and indeed hamming it up a bit. Here, she is presented as a victim: an abused child, perhaps, a teenage prostitute, definitely someone on the losing end. And yet (if we recall correctly) this is from exactly the same session as the other picture, using the same equipment and materials and the same light source. The shirt, incidentally, is Red Army issue. Our friend Oleg Svyatoslavsky, who was a Red Army translator in the days of the Soviet Union, gave it to Frances some years ago. We chose it for its drabness. The 1917 badge on her beret in the earlier shot was bought at GUM in about 1990, in the very last days of the Soviet Union.


sophie victim


prague museum


National Technical Museum, Prague

There's no use at all of chiaroscuro in this picture. If anything, it is the exact opposite. The museum (which is very well worth visiting, and has a superb collection of photographic equipment) is designed so that all exhibits are lit as well and as evenly as possible. When you are shooting a subject like this, there really is very little chance of using dramatic lighting: you have to capture the viewers' attention via content (always the strongest candidate) or composition, perhaps via the use of carefully chosen focal lengths. Roger shot this on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX in his Leica MP, most probably with his 35/1.4 Summilux.


gramma s.


Bertha Schultz

David Schultz, Frances's late uncle, took this picture of his mother (Frances's grandmother) in about 1965. As far as we know, he did not use artificial lighting; this is just the way it was.

It illustrates two points very well. The first is that the 'spotlight' effect of chiaroscuro need not be very hard or directional, and the second is that by choosing what you 'spotlight' (either literally or via composition) you can say more about your subject than you can by photographing the subject alone.

Frances made a 'wet' print from an elderly negative inherited from her father; we then cleaned it up still further in Adobe Photoshop. Old negatives need never die...


Flat and partially flat subjects

True notan is easy with flat subjects like the London Underground sign below left, but at that point, it is disputable whether you can really call it notan: it's just graphic design. The real credit for the Underground sign is the genius who designed it, plus (in this case) the artisans who put it together. The only aesthetic choices Roger made were to render it as if photographed square-on (which involved a bit of pulling around in Adobe Photoshop) and including the cobalt blue tiles (imperfectly rendered here) in the cropped composition. The bridge and lamps (below right), on the other hand, seem to us to be less than satisfactory because the picture consists of a reasonably dramatic flat composition superimposed on some very conventional perspective, mostly of receding planes.


underground sign


London Underground

Bridge and lamps, London

Both were shot with the Leica M8 digital (we had not had it long), both, as far as we recall, with the 15/4.5 Voigtlander Ultra-Wide Heliar. In both cases, some adjustment in Adobe Photoshop was needed to recreate how Roger saw the subjects: the photographer's vision and the camera's do not always match.


bridge, london


Focal length and enlargement size

For a given enlargement size, a longer focal length 'flattens' perspective. This often diminishes the effect of chiaroscuro and leads to a more graphic composition. The effect is very dependent on enlargement size, though: the bigger the enlargement, the more compressed the perspective is likely to be.


2 girls




Two young friends, Transylvania

Roger shot this (as far as he recalls) with a 75/2 Summicron on his Leica MP; the film was Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100, EBX. The longer-than-standard focal length led to a slight flattening of perspective, but also to very inadequate depth of field: even at this size, you can see that the girl behind is sharper than the one in front. But running it as a small picture helps conceal this oversight as well as flattening the perspective still more.


Roofs, Sighisoara, Transylvania


Even a modest increase in focal length -- Roger shot this with a 75/2 Summicron on his Leica MP -- results in some 'flattening' of perspective, and the unfamiliar viewpoint (from atop the clock tower), together with the lack of scale in the roofs, makes the picture still more graphic. The intriguing thing is that while there is very strong use of light and shade, with direct sunlight shining almost straight towards the camera (look at the shadow of the chimney in the foreground), there is almost no impression of chiaroscuro in the conventional sense. Compare this with the shot of the Thames, above: perhaps chiaroscuro is not compatible with into-the-light shots.

It is interesting, too, to reflect upon where the sense of perspective in this picture does come from. Much of it is perspective of scale: we know what size people and cars are, and judge the rest of the picture from that. But there is also a 'perspective of detail', where nearer subjects (especially roof-tiles) exhibit more detail and texture than more distant ones.

Sighisoara was the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler, a spectacularly unpleasant monster whom the inhabitants of the town take great care to conflate with Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, Dracula, for the benefit of tourists. Here, an unfortunate electronic artifact, at least on the monitor used to create this module, is that the tiles on the nearest roof are nothing like as bitingly sharp as they are in the original transparency.



sigisoara roofs



easton pub


  Pub, Easton, Bristol


Yet more evidence that light and shadow alone do not make what is normally called chiaroscuro. The principal subject is obviously the man in the chair, but we have to struggle a bit in order to see him; in a successful chiaroscuro shot, he would be a lot more chiaro, while unimportant details such as the back of his chair would be a lot more oscuro.

The technical information for this shot is exactly the same as for the Brick Lane pub shot, above. The M8, with a 15mm lens and the ISO equivalent set to 2500, is an ideal camera for candid pub shots. Both were shot in JPEG format, because we were still getting used to the camera, but DNG (RAW) format would almost certainly have been a lot more successful.

Although we still vastly prefer film for black and white photography, the very high ISO equivalent available with digital cameras does make them very useful for low-light colour. And, of course, you can re-set the ISO when you don't need the speed.






Chiaroscuro is normally used deliberately, to accentuate those parts of the picture that are important and play down those parts that are not. Here we see a slightly different use. The chiaroscuro is strong, but it is almost as if it is picking things out at random: the gloves (the focal point), the head of the doll, the cowboy hat, the old boots... Part of the attraction of this picture is trying to work out what some of the things are: the tripod on the left, the flying jacket whose collar snakes down from the doll's head, and so forth. Of course, this is exactly what we intended when we set this shot up: the attic (in our former house in Birchington, Kent) was somewhat 'improved' or 'gardened' for this picture, which is on 6x7cm film shot in a 'baby' Linhof. The lens was probably our 100/5.6 Apo-Symmar but we've forgotten.

The Bottom Line

Like so many verbal analytical tools in photography, chiaroscuro works best when we do not push our luck too far by trying to be overly rigorous in saying what is, and is not, chiaroscuro. Our intention in this module has been as much to show where it goes wrong, as where it goes right.


In other words, what we are saying is that dramatic lighting is not, in or of itself, the same as chiaroscuro -- and that when we do try to make deliberate use of chiaroscuro, especially under controlled lighting, it is a good idea to use low-contrast film (or set the contrast low on a digital camera, or use DNG/RAW) because a scene that looks dramatic to the human eye may be altogether too contrasty for a photograph.

Vendage, La Buttière


A clear and indeed classic example of chiaroscuro, but also an illustration of two of the many risks of using this technique in photography. Because Roger was hand-holding the camera (Voigtlander Bessa R or R2, he forgets which), the lens (Voigtlander Ultron 35/1.7) was necessarily used at full aperture in the interests of avoiding camera shake. This allowed insufficient depth of field to hold both men in sharp focus, and had the additional disadvantage that the nose of the man on the left has been transformed into an overlit beak, with a Mr. Punch jaw-line underneath. Very, very weak fill-flash or other fill lighting might have allowed slightly better modelling and maybe it might have allowed the use of f/2.8 instead of f/1.7. Yes, the film (Ilford Delta 3200, from memory) could have been 'pushed' further, but of course that would have increased the contrast still more, probably to the further detriment of the man on the left.




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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks