The Chiaroscuro and Rembrandt Lighting

5 August 2011

In order to achieve the beautiful contrast between light and dark, known as chiaroscuro there is a method employed by photographers – Rembrandt Lighting. Here, with some beautiful examples, is how it is done.

The Italian language is a good one from which to borrow phrases. The lilt of the language gives words sensual warmth that is so often lacking in the languages of Northern Europe. So it is with the term Chiaroscuro. As a straightforward translation it literally means light-dark. In art (and contextually for this piece, specifically photography) the term means the contrasting effect between light and dark that gives a composition a significantly different effect than had it been done otherwise.

The effect here gives a sense of volume. Chiaroscuro is particularly effective when it comes to three dimensional objects such as animals and the human body but is also extensively used in landscape photography. The lack of volume which can make so many photographs seem flat and lifeless is discovered in the use of shadow and highlight. This combination is often referred to as shading. Here the light coming through the trees not only gives the composition volume but perspective too.

In cinematography the effect was used particularly in the era of black and white film. Lit with supreme care, the distinctive areas of darkness and light created in films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame of 1939 was no accident. Even today the technique is used to startling effect in films such as Sin City and Hellboy.

In order to capture chiaroscuro there is one technique in photography that is used to great effect. This is referred to as Rembrandt lighting. Although used overwhelmingly by professional photographers it is a technique that is not too difficult – or expensive – to create if you are just starting out or experimenting with photography. Rembrandt lighting is not always done in the studio, of course. At certain times of day, notably the golden hour of photography (see link at the end of the article) natural light lends itself to the Rembrandt effect.

If it is to be done in a studio, Rembrandt lighting is surprisingly easy to set up, given the wonderful effect that it can give. It is named after the Dutch painter who was famous for his use of light and dark. It is often used in studio portraiture and is achieved by using a single light and a reflector.You can see it faithfully reproduced by Flickr Photographer Sedeer above.

Quite often two lights are used but for the portraitist just starting out a single is quite sufficient. The technique helps to create images that look both natural but somewhat enhanced without making the picture look too posed or unnaturally lit.

The term was coined by Cecil B DeMille was back in 1915. He had borrowed spotlights from an opera house while making The Warrens of Virginia. He wanted to try and create shadows on film as they would appear in nature. Sam Goldywn, his business partner, was horrified when he saw the results – in some scenes the actors only had half of their face lit up (somewhat alike to real life). DeMille thought on his feet and told him that it was Rembrandt lighting. In his autobiography he recalls the reaction. “Sam’s reply was jubilant with relief: for Rembrandt lighting the exhibitors would pay double!”

The key light, to the side of the subject, is placed high. The reflector on the other side of the subject is placed at half the height. If the subject of the photograph is facing the camera at an angle then the key light must illuminate the far side of the face. What should be created, if the technique is done properly, is a triangular shape of light underneath the eyes of the subject. The chiaroscuro, the interaction of the light and the shadows should do its work on the other side of the face. The picture above was created in this way, with the exception that there was also a background light additionally used.

The effect can be subtle or it can be extreme. This is all dependent on the distance of the subject of the photograph from the light and also how strong the light from both the fill light and the reflector is. It doesn’t need to be done with proper photographer’s lighting either. The photo on the left was taken with natural light and a piano light on the viewer’s left. The second was done with a fluorescent light to the left in the same natural light condition.

Many professional photographers use these techniques today, among them Annie Liebovitz and Diane Arbus. In terms of their documentary photography, the chiaroscuro method is one which they adhere to as it gives quite stunning results, such as the picture above.

To read about the Golden Hour of Photography, please click HERE.


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