Want to learn how to capture deeper emotions and more atmospheric scenes in your photography but are unsure of where to begin? The way I achieve these looks is through chiaroscuro photography with an emphasis on atmospheric lighting. I like to call it “atmospheric chiaroscuro” and it’s where I focus on the extreme contrast between the clear and the dark in a photograph.
“Dark & Moody,” you might be thinking?
Not quite. The photographic style I am talking about—chiaroscuro—has the power to turn the mundane into the romantic, and is characterized by darker tones, selective use of highlights, deeper colors and breathtaking atmospheric lighting. But let’s go back in history for a moment to see where the dark & moody and chiaroscuro looks originated.
In painting terms, a dark and moody look is very much rooted in the Rembrandt style (1606-1669): murky, monochromatic tones with softer edges between shadow and light.
Chiaroscuro is a renaissance painting technique which literally means “light-dark” in Italian. What I like to call atmospheric chiaroscuro is more immersed in the style of Caravaggio (1571-1610)—darker backgrounds but also high contrast between highlights and shadows with harmonious saturated tones.
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There is poetry in both styles, but whereas dark and moody photography (Rembrandt) can be melancholic and monochromatic, while atmospheric chiaroscuro (Caravaggio) displays more dynamic emotions.
Here are my three top tips to set you up for success in your journey in defining your unique version of chiaroscuro photograpy.
Tips on How to Become a Chiaroscuro Photography Master
Tip 1: Exaggerate the juxtaposition between highlights and shadows for a chiaroscuro look with atmospheric lighting.
In chiaroscuro photography, we are looking to create emotionally charged atmospheres to tell a deeper story. We are looking for raw feeling. Emotions are not flat. They live in extremes. The stronger we want to feel, the closer to the edge we have to get.
This is accomplished by exaggerating the juxtaposition between brightness (highlights) and darkness (shadows) in our images. How do you do that exactly?
An easy way to start shooting chiaroscuro is by defining “correct exposure” differently than how your camera does. First of all, you want to shoot darker and underexpose your photographs. We do this on camera by exposing to the highlights (i.e. the brightest part of the frame). This will create an overall darker image with deeper shadows. If you own a mirrorless camera, like in my case a Canon R6 for example, you will be able to see this directly on the viewfinder and the process will become more instinctive. If you are not working with a mirrorless, then aim to shoot 1 to 2 stops darker than the camera tells you, take a test shot, and adjust exposure as you see fit.
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Secondly, in post production, we need to paint back light where we want it. This is usually on parts of or on all of your actual subject itself. In doing so, we achieve two things—we make the subject pop out of the darkness and we reinforce the concept of chiaroscuro to create a more emotionally ripe cinematic photograph. I personally do this by using a custom overexposure brush (also known as a dodge brush) I developed on Lightroom and tweak it as I go.
In the sequence below, you can see how this technique of going dark on camera to then paint light back where wanted in post production can easily create manufactured atmospheres and emotionally charged images in otherwise bland and characterless spaces.
Final edited image.
TIP 2: Focus on lighting to achieve atmospheric chiaroscuro.
Ask yourself what is more romantic: a well and evenly lit room, or the same room but darker with only a ray of light seeping in through the window and lighting up dust particles like they were gold dust? Most of us will say the latter and that is because of one simple word: atmosphere.
Atmosphere can be created by all sorts of lights, but for me the easiest and most effective way to do so is by working with directional light. This doesn’t have to mean hard light. It can be soft, but one that is traveling in a clear path from A to B.
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Directional light allows the subject to be sculpted in a more powerful (i.e less flat) way and it will undoubtably create a more interesting light source which seeps into the frame and directs the viewer’s eye around your image. This is how we can crank atmosphere on overdrive in our photography and help create a stronger, more dynamic composition which is romantic and a pinch mysterious.
Let’s look at some examples of natural available light to see how directional light can work to your advantage.
The photo above was shot in Hôi An (Vietnam). Underexposing the image draws attention to the lanterns but the directional light source—in this case a window above—lights up the couple and allows for a beautiful visual effect of light seeping into darkness. This in turn amps up the romantic atmosphere of the place and turns the picture into a cinematographic moment.
The same applies to the image below, taken during a post-ceremony boat trip near Oxford (England). Notice how the setting sun light is directional and leads the eye from outside the frame directly to the subject, which is placed in the sweet spot where light meets shadow.
The next image (below) is an example of extreme backlighting shot at dawn in the middle of the Dolomites in Italy. Backlighting adds drama, darkness and contrast but adding directional lighting helps reinforce that emotionally charged atmosphere further.
If you find that you are shooting in flatter lights or if you feel the need to exaggerate existing conditions, you can use gradients in Lightroom to dodge (lighten) and burn (darken) your photographs in post production and give/reinforce that directional light you are looking for.
TIP 3: Add a little mystery.
In a world where everything is fast, flashy, instant, discarder as quickly as it’s consumed… a little mystery can be refreshing. Think about it. Isn’t the expectation of an action often more exciting than the action itself? Why? Because the possibilities are endless in our minds and our imagination is our superpower.
Think of your photography as a way to trigger a deeper feeling beyond an image. Allow yourself to be a bit of a tease. Play with your viewer. Tickle their imagination and grab their interest. Be a little mysterious in the name of romance.
Use your shadows to hide information and your highlights light to reveal just enough to trigger an emotional response to your viewer. Then let their curiosity guide them to connect the dots and form a story in their minds.
Andrea Verenini is a wedding and fashion photographer specializing in unique weddings and chiaroscuro photography. He was named a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star in 2021. He hails from the snow covered peaks of the Dolomites in Italy but currently lives by the seaside on the south coast of the U.K. with his wife, two cats and an ever growing collection of plants.