Chiaroscuro is the technique employed by many of the old masters in their paintings, using a single light source to illuminate the subject, creating mysterious shadows and beautiful highlights. It can be used in photography too, and my friend and teacher, Frank Van Riper, teaches a class in Washington DC called “Lighting like Caravaggio” in which he explores lighting in various creative ways.
Not living on the same continent as Frank, I was unable to attend his class, more’s the pity. Inspired by the concept though, I spent a very interesting hour or two with an Anglepoise lamp and my camera, trying to create similar effects to Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez and of course Caravaggio in my kitchen, using only what was available in the house.
I was quite pleased with what I managed to achieve with no studio lighting or flash, just a lamp, some household objects and a bit of thought. I started off with an apple, thinking about those dark Dutch still lifes with glowing fruit. Not having any material to hand, I used a tennis jacket draped on the chair and table to provide a black background and make the colours of the apple pop. Looking at it now, I would angle the light slightly differently to eliminate the glare, but I still like the way the apple appears out of the blackness.
Casting an eye around the kitchen, I spotted this small decorated spice grinder that my friend Karina bought me in Lebanon. It’s a beautiful shape and the design on the bronze or brass creates nice contrast. By chance the late evening sun created that patch of filtered light in the left corner.
By this point I was really getting into this theme and hunted round for more and more objects to photograph, some of which worked better than others.
Finally, with Rembrandt in mind, I thought this would be great lighting for a portrait. Unfortunately I was at home on my own at the time, but I decided I’d try a self-portrait and see how it came out. I took this using nothing more than my camera held in my right hand, pointed vaguely at my head with my left hand steadying and depressing the shutter. No tripod, no shutter release, no fancy tools. It took a few attempts to make sure the light wasn’t reflected in my glasses, but I got a few good shots along with several where I look dead because I’ve twisted my neck into a weird position. Even more shocking though, I got a photo of me that I actually like!