Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Working the light for a chiaroscuro effect in black and white

This is a scene I photograph quite often, mostly in the late evening around sunset or afterwards into the night.

I had been observing the light change for awhile, as the sun moved further into the southern horizon. I wanted this to be a photo of the Flatiron District with the Flatiron Building playing center stage in the composition. At 10:30AM the building was fully lit from the morning sun, which also left a pleasing shape of light at its foot. I felt the way the light fell on the city at that time would make an interesting black and white image with a composition built upon dark contrasts of light and deep shadow.

I felt the photo is a little difficult to see at this size so I included a high res version, which can be downloaded here. It isn't as big as the final 40" wide image, but is big enough to give a sense of detail. 
Even though the Flatiron Building is the main focus, my favorite part of the scene is off to the left where the sunlight bounced off of a building to light up the Metropolitan Life tower and clock.

The dark areas of the scene were as important as the lit areas in terms of the compostion so I didn't know in advance what focal length lens I would want to record the scene. I settled on putting the 24-120mm Nikon f/4 zoom on a Nikon D810. The zoom gave me some quick mobility to bracket around the focal lengths, and the f/4 didn't bother me because the photo was going to be taken in very bright sunlight and I could pick my aperture.

I added a polarizing filter to both darken the deep blue sky and cut through the haze in the distant building. Even so, with an ISO of 100 I ended up at f/5.6 and 1/250 of a second. While you could hand hold a camera at that speed, I have learned the hard way that it is best to put a high resolution  camera like the Nikon D810 on a tripod at all times. High resolution seems to magnify motion blur.

In post processing I pushed the contrast even further to increase the chiaroscuro effect and added a vignette for the same reason but also to focus the attention at the center of the scene.


  1. well, the chiaroscuro only really works in rooms, in very closed environments, never in plein air like this photo.

  2. Sorry, but I disagree. The term chiaroscuro (especially with a lower case "c") is defined as the technique of controlling the subtle flow of light and shade falling upon a scene. It is not relegated to the Renaissance painters who used the technique mostly indoors. Film Noir is a form of chiaroscuro technique in black and white. Many street photographers use the contrasting emergence of black and white shapes to define their compositions. Light can flow as subtly in a large scene as it does in a more intimate area.