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.
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.
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.