What is Chiaroscuro Lighting and When is this Lighting Technique Used

What is Chiaroscuro Lighting and When is this Lighting Technique Used?

Originating from the Italian term Chiaro for “light” and Scuro for “dark,” Chiaroscuro lighting techniques can be used to represent start contrasts between light and shadow to produce at three-dimensional look. Chiaroscuro lighting can be used for a variety of different situations to produce three-dimensional quality in otherwise two-dimensional images. But what is chiaroscuro lighting anyway and when it it used?

Chiaroscuro Lighting Defined

Chiaroscuro lighting dates by to Leonardo Davinci and was further refined by Vermeer and Rembrandt.  The process involves the use of contrast in light and shadows across an image to produce a three-dimensional quality in an image that is located on a two-dimensional plane. Chiaroscuro uses intense contrasts of light and dark which can create a very strong, and dramatic mood towards the film.

The Chiaroscuro effect was long used primarily on portraits but is also valuable for adding depth to landscape and still life as well. The use of contrasting light and shadows produces the illusion of a three-dimensional scene.

When is Chiaroscuro Lighting Technique Used

The Chiaroscuro lighting technique is used in film to create a refined darkness that encompasses the character to bring about a sense of depth. Essentially cinematography can be referred to as painting with light. The Chiaroscuro lighting technique is used to produce a dramatic appearance that makes the audience sense a feeling of solitude, mystery and deep drama associated with the character.

The Chiaroscuro lighting technique is used in films to highlight a subject’s features. Although we see this technique used in today’s film productions it was more pronounced and created a much more dramatic effect when used in the 1940s-50s before color films were produced. There’s just something about the stunning dimension that comes from the production of a scene that is lit using the Chiaroscuro lighting technique. Once a filmmaking standard, Chiaroscuro lighting may change from film to film or between directors but the end result, an increase in the depth and drama produced by stark contrasts in light and shadow and captured by the cinematographer remain quite similar in scope.

Chiaroscuro Lighting Setup in Film

Setting up for chiaroscuro technique requires a minimalist approach to lighting to produce a dramatic effect. Typically, the lighting is used to produce stark contrast by shining the light from one side to illuminate the face allowing the rest to fall into the darkness. This produces the 3D depth and dimension in the 2-dimensional space.

To produce a chiaroscuro lighting setup, follow the instructions below:

  • Choose your subject. Remember that this lighting technique is best used to light the human body or a 3-dimensional surface as lighting a flat surface will have minimal dramatic impact.
  • Choose the mood for the scene. This effect is generally used to create mystery, seriousness, or an added element of drama.
  • Eliminate all external lighting. You don’t want any lighting interrupting your use of the chiaroscuro lighting technique on your subject. Make sure you are working with a dark canvas.
  • Produce your main angled light. The primary light source will be angled at 45 degrees from the subject you intend to use the Chiaroscuro lighting technique on.
  • Experiment with the lighting to get the best, most dimensional look. Place your lighting at varied angles and heights to produce different effects on your subject. You’ll notice that the emotions that are depicted by the change in lighting can range from mysterious to forbidden to lonely or confined.


Ready to work with a production team that understands lighting techniques from the past and present? Give Beverly Boy Productions a call to get started with the Chiaroscuro lighting technique or one of several other lighting techniques that will bring your film to life.

Lencarta uploaded a tutorial on how to create Chiaroscuro lighting for yourself:

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