Chiaroscuro–Light and Dark in Photogeraphy

Photographers depend on the light. It is always the light that we refer to. The beautiful crisp light of the early morning, the harsh direct light of mid day, and the golden light just before sunset. We all know about these and relish or avoid them depending upon what our goals are. Our images depend on the light, but often the beauty in them comes from the shadows, or more importantly the chiaroscuro created by the interplay of light and object creating shadow. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning “light dark.” Originally used to describe the balance of light and dark in a painting, often those with strong contrasts. Actually contrast doesn’t have to be harsh or strong to warrant the term chiaroscuro, even though that’s where the term is more often used.

Strong contrasts create dramatic effect. Most all photography teachers experience the high contrast, “hot” images of beginners. Easy to shoot, and easy to produce in the dark room or on the computer. I recall how many times I repeated my mantra “the beauty is in the mid-tones.” I would show the work of Ray Metzker and tell them how very difficult it is to do something like that—the skill and thought required.

The shadows and contrasts produce form, shape, surface texture, and even darkness. I think of the term, chiaroscuro, when the light is just right and the shadows it produces contribute a dramatic effect making the photo more meaningful and dramatic. Doing this in black and white or in color is what photography is about.

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