Shadows in Cinema and Your Photography


Many film lovers consider Citizen Kane to be the best film ever made but I would disagree and suggest that Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man is the best motion picture of all time—especially for photographers. The above still from the movie gives part of the reason; the way the film uses shadows and in the (below) trailer you can see how the director plays with shadows and so should you as a photographer.


Chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark) is the use of strong contrast between light and dark, usually bold contrasts that affecting the whole composition. Chiaroscuro is a technical term used by artists for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume and modelling three-dimensional objects, such as the human body and similar effects in the lighting for cinema and photography also often use the same term.

The use of chiaroscuro in your own photography can give your images a wide dynamic range from deep black shadows to bright facial highlights and the best way to handle it involves a rule taught back in the days of shooting film: “Expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows.” The exposure part works the same way and you can develop the image by shooting in RAW format and processing the file keeping the shadows deep and dark. But there’s more to chiaroscuro and you should use it as part of the composition, as seen in the above TCM trailer.

The Orson Welles love fest continues thanks to Shutterbug Editor-in-chief, George Schaub, who gave me the idea for this post and if anybody like it—series of posts.

Author: Joe Farace

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