Chiaroscuro in Landscape Photography

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04/08/2013 - 23:42

Chiaroscuro in Landscape Photography


The origin of the noun ‘Chiaroscuro’ is from the Italian words ‘chiaro’ (clear, light) + ‘oscuro’( obscure, dark)


The first known use of this term was in 1686.



Some dictionary definitions of the term are:


  • pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color



  • the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art


  •  the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character)


  • the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface


  • the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow


One of the early pioneers of portraying this dramatic interplay of light and shadows in fine art was Leonardo da Vinci -though for him colour tones upon a surface played an integral part in the compsoition of chiaroscuro images, so as to draw our attention to the 3-dimensional nature of the subjects.



'The Virgin of the Rocks'  (Leonardo da Vinci)




Another fine artist to follow and become renowned for this style of painting was Michelangelo Merisi (also known as ‘Amerighi’) da Caravaggio. Carravagio was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1592 and 1610. Although he didn’t use the term ‘chiaroscuro’, much of his magnificent, emotive and powerful work hinged on the drama portrayed by the high contrasts of light & shadows within each of his finely crafted paintings.


'The Calling of St. Matthew' (Caravaggio)




Some of Carravagio's later works became descrribed as  Tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso (meaning murky), a style of intense chiaroscuro becoming a very dominant feature, such a sin the image below:



'Narcissus' (Caravaggio)



Rembrandt was another master of this style of dramaticly theatrical interplay of the juxtaposition of bold light & deep shadows  - notably to draw our attention to the most important, or active figure in a scene.


"The Philosopher in Meditation" (Rembrandt)







Ansel Adam’s was a master of black and white landscape photography  and many of his bold black and white photographs make use of the chiaroscuro technique – often in ‘active weather’, with many making use of the high contrast lighting that occurs with approaching or clearing storms. Such light in his images amplifies depth & form and they are deeply emotive and beautifully crafted.


'Tetons & The Snake River' is one of many fine examples ...




"A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed." 

(Ansel Adams)




Another great American landscape photographer, who is  fond of chiaroscuro lighting is Michael Frye.




'Storm clouds over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View' -  Yosemite National Park, CA, USA



Alain Briot's stunning 'Clearing Spring Storm Over Canyon de Chelley' is another stunning example of a considered use of chiaroscuro.





Some examples of my own chiaroscuro studies within the context of Landscape Photography are below -




'Emerge' - Chiaroscuro upon a small part of the rapids on the River Aune, in Dartmoor National Park in Devon.






'Verdure' - Venford Falls - Dartmoor



'Erme Chiaroscuro'    River Erme - Lontimber Woods - Dartmoor



Use of Michael Frye's adaptation of Ansel Adam's  'Zone system'   by spot metering for the brightest part of scene with bright spot(s) and deep shadow can create for photographers, a great juxtaposition between this high contrast light and shade.


Places & situations where this may occur would include...


  • stormlight with its ‘puddles of light’;


  • waterfalls (particularly in a gorge) & whitewater in shaded parts of gorges/ steeply banked narrow rivers;


  • shaded bits of woodlands or forests with crepuscular light coming through the canopy to the floor;


  • slot canyons of American deserts,


  • sea caves with a ‘blow-hole’ in the roof


... and more.




Now it's your turn to go and explore the possibilites :)





Sophie-Margaret and John
05/08/2013 - 16:32
Excellent information on the 'light and dark' aspects of compositions in the world of art and photography. Your site has many good examples and two, particularly-good ones are: 'Cereal Killers' and 'Timberlands'...absolutely stunning and beautifully captured. Your works must be in great have a very special talent!
14/08/2015 - 14:58
Good article, nice summary and excellent examples. Helpful, ta.

I found a way of thinking about it that helps with dodge+burning technique: if you want something to stand out, don't dodge the subject but burn the surroundings instead.
Phil Hemsley
14/08/2015 - 15:18
Many thanks indeed Tim😊

Like your creative thinking about processing 😉

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