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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Lighting Experiments – Chiaroscuro

Building on my work inspired by Film Noir, I also use paintings, cinema and graphic novels as starting points for inspiring narratives. Caravaggio paintings in particular have influenced some of my work in terms of composition, lighting and subject. For example I have used my appreciation of Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter and his use of the chiaroscuro effect to enable me to create images that have powerful and dramatic lighting. Chiaroscuro literally means light and dark.  There is a strong contrast between the light areas and the shadows of the images.


Figure 1: Caravaggio. The Denial of Saint Peter. 1610 

Bill Henson uses chiaroscuro to great effect in his work.  He achieves his painterly aesthetic through underexposing images or making adjustments during the printing process.  His images are cinematic and powerful, with no clear narrative.  The interpretation is open-ended and full of mystery.  His images successfully use chiaroscuro to both selectively obscure and reveal parts of the subject portrayed.


Figure 2: Bill Henson


Figure 3: Bill Henson

For my experiments with chiaroscuro, I have worked both in a studio and on location.

Studio Lighting Set-Up Experiments

Prior to my models arriving, I experimented with the different lights to determine the effect of each one.  I experimented with different reflectors, settings, angles and accessories such as snoods.  This allowed me to determine the set ups I wanted to try with my models.

All photographs in above : Sutherst 2017

Studio Lighting Experiments

The following images were all shot using one light source against a grey background.


Figure 4: Sutherst 2017


Figure 5: Sutherst 2016


Figure 6: Sutherst 2017


Figure 7: Sutherst 2017

The resulting images are successful and reflect the vision I had for the work.  I personally prefer the monochrome images to those in colour as I feel the colour detracts slightly, particularly the yellow in the 2nd image.

The light in each image was placed to the side of the subject, except in the bottom image, where the light (with honeycomb grid) was placed directly under the subject’s face.  All other lights were turned off in the studio.  With no light at all falling on the grey backdrop, this image appears to have been shot on a black background.  The image was shot at ISO64, 1/160s and f10.

“In each of us lie good and bad, light and dark, art and pain, choice and regret, cruelty and sacrifice. We’re each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion fighting to emerge into something solid, something real. We’ve got to forgive ourselves that. I must remember to forgive myself. Because there is a lot of grey to work with. No one can live in the light all the time.”

–  Libba Bray

The following were shot with two light sources – one main light source in front or to the side of the subject and one behind to add some more depth to the image.


Figure 8: Sutherst 2017


Figure 9: Sutherst 2017


Figure 10: Sutherst 2017

Again, the resulting images are successful in the use of chiaroscuro.  The middle image is my favourite of these, even though it is in colour. I chose a slightly lower shooting position, which adds to the drama in the image.

All of these experiments in the studio have produced images that are 3-dimensional and dramatic. I will experiment further with this lighting effect as I progress my project.

Location Lighting Experiments

The image below was shot outside on a very sunny day.  The sun was behind the model and a beauty dish was placed to the side of her. The image was shot at ISO 100 with a speed of 1/320s (Nikon d810) and an aperture of f18, in order to achieve the desired effect.


Figure 11: Sutherst 2017

The image is quite dramatic, yet not as 3-dimensional as the studio images.  The effect of the beauty dish is soft and quite flattering to the model.  This image would have benefitted from a an additional

The image below was shot outside on a very sunny day. The sun was behind the model and I used a camera flash with a Lastolite Strobo 9mm honeycomb grid fitted to direct the light.  The image was shot at ISO 100 with a speed of 1/320s (Nikon d810) and an aperture of f18.  This gave the darken effect of the sky, whilst allowing the direct sunlight to add a little illumination to the hair.


Figure 12: Sutherst 2017

This image is more successful than the previous one.  There is a better 3-dimensional feel to the image.  The light, although from an onboard directional flash, is still quite flattering to the face.  I did not convert the image to black and white due to the darkness of the sky.  My subject would have been lost in the grey tones.

The image below was shot outside in darkness with an orange overhead lamp on the left hand side. I used a camera flash with Lastolite Strobo 9mm honeycomb grid fitted to direct the light. The image was shot at ISO 100 with a speed of 1/250s (Nikon d810) and an aperture of f11.

17-12-16 - Pozers - Ady-1022

Figure 13: Sutherst 2017

The image is successful in portraying a dark scene.  It would have benefitted from additional contrast to really make the image punchy and more edgy.  However, given the lack of natural lighting, I am pleased that the camera was able to focus correctly and that I was able to obtain the shot.  The image was converted to black and white due to the orange glow from the overhead light.

Moving forwards, I still have experiments and shoots to carry out in order to determine if I will be including chiaroscuro lighting in my major project.


Bray, L. FromA-Z Quotes. 2017. Libba Bray quote: In each of us lie good and bad, light and…. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2017].

Figure 1: Caravaggio. From The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. 2017. The Denial of Saint Peter | Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) | 1997.167 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2017].

Figure 2: Henson, B. From [Accessed 12 March 2017]

Figure 3: Henson, B. From [Accessed 12 March 2107]

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