Chiaroscuro Lighting

Chiaroscuro lighting, or ‘Rembrandt’ lighting as it is also called, is a technique used in photography and in painting. It accentuates the focal point of the composition by bathing it in light. That way the area surrounding the focal point disappears slowly into the darker recesses. The Italian word ‘chiaroscuro’ means light and dark. And the alternative name of ‘Rembrandt’ lighting comes from the painter himself. It comes from the fact that he used that lighting effect in a lot of his paintings. In fact he may be the finest artist to have used the technique.

Golden pear lit by Chiaroscuro or ‘Rembrandt’ lighting

In photography it’s fairly straightforward to produce a chiaroscuro lighting effect with window light, because window light is directional.

Low Contrast Chiaroscuro Lighting

So in the northern hemisphere the ideal window is one that faces north. That is away from the direction of the sun, because the light is less contrasty.

If the subject is placed very near the window, however, the light fall-off may be too rapid. Then the contrast between light and dark will be too abrupt. That’s because light always falls off most rapidly the nearer the subject is to the light source.

And there is a dramatic decrease in the intensity of the light with each step back into the shadows.

That may be a light bulb moment, understanding that a minimum amount of contrast – about half a stop of light – is all you need for a smooth transition from light to less light.

The Balance Between Contrast And Poor Light

So it’s a better idea to put the subject well into the room. The bigger the room the better. If you can put the subject twenty feet from the window, that’s great. Then there will only be a small fall off of light with each foot further away from the window. And the fall off of light caused by moving that small extra distance from the light source isn’t great. That’s because the light has already spent its power penetrating that first twenty feet.

Placing a subject close to a light source can be very dramatic, and suits portraits of older men best. That’s because it accentuates the crags and crevices in their features. Move back into the shadows to make the transition from light to dark less dramatic and you get another problem. Quite simply, there may be too little light if the subject is placed deeper into the room.

Of course, there are some buildings that are lit dramatically on purpose. Churches are a perfect example, and none more so than this church in Jerusalem.

A common way to overcome the problem of too much contrast or too little light at all, is to place the subject near the window and use a reflector. Angle the reflector to bounce light back into its darker side and so reduce the contrast across it.

By adding light back into the darker part of the image we can lower the contrast across the image or make the whole image lighter.

Chiaroscuro Pear

But that’s not all that Rembrandt lighting is, because he used it to color the scene to create mood. And I thought of that when I lit this photograph of a pear.


About The Blog

The Flying Twigs blog is about several topics, closely related. One topic is what we call 'Behind the cards', and another is the 'How To Write' series.

Behind The Cards

The Behind the cards articles are where we write about the thinking that went into a particular card. On one hand a card should speak for itself and that its message and emotional content should be clear. On the other hand, there is always a back story. The story might be where we were when we took a photograph that features in the card. Or it might be how we arrived at the design, the colour palette, or the typography to get the message across.

How To Write

The How To Write articles are about how to write the message in your card. It's for when you need help planing how you are going to write a card. A good example is a Leaving Card to a colleaue at work. You may be close to that person or not so close. And you may see them every day and wonder what you can write when you and your colleague have said so much already. That's where our advice comes in.

Or you might want to write a sympathy card to a friend or a relative. You may be casting about for ideas and not know what to write. Our How To Write articles have you covered.


Design is another topic we cover, such as an article about dazzle camouflage in World War I warships, and dazzles of zebra.

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