“What’s that?” I hear you say. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word which literally means “bright-dark”. It’s an artistic term used to describe the use of strong contrasts between light and dark areas to enhance the 3D modelling of the subject and create drama.
And I love it!
If you’re after a dramatic finish to a photograph, look no further. The technique used here is to selectively darken and lighten parts of the photograph to make a high contrast result that really pops.
And here’s the original image. To some, this might seem like cheating. The final photograph is obviously very processed. To me, it’s just art. As long as I’m not trying to pass this off as an untouched image, it’s just my artistic take on what I see when I look at this photograph. I see the texture of the animal’s horns, skin and hair and the contrasty treatment brings those out, along with some sharpening. I also see buffalo as dangerous, edgy, cantankerous creatures and post-processing the image this way emphasises those characteristics.
It would be a rare thing indeed to find wildlife in just the perfect lighting conditions, so photographers often use some post-processing license to make what they’ve taken into a piece of art. In fact, I regard post-production as about half the effort of taking and making a photograph.
I started in Lightroom by cropping into the section of the image I thought had most impact. For me, that was the curve of the horn with part of the face showing: I felt it created a pleasing composition, while showing some of the textural detail in the image. Then I played with the exposure, contrast, blacks, whites, shadows and highlights sliders to get close to the feel of what I was looking for. A little clarity and some sharpening can work well, but I don’t like to go overboard with those. Sometimes I add an exposure curve and vignette, or radial filter to help things along, too. Once I got as far as possible with those sliders, I selectively darkened and lightened parts with the brush. This is such a fantastic tool in Lightroom and it’s rare I need to take photos into Photoshop for finishing. The result of the brushing is to make only the parts I wanted to draw attention to pop out of the photograph.
Here’s a classical painting example: “The Matchmaker“ by Dutch painter, Gerard van Honthorst. Note how the use of selective light and dark areas dramatically draws the eye immediately to the woman on the right and creates a really dramatic image. As you can see from the buffalo, it works for wildlife, too.
And finally, here are a couple of my favourite African big cat images where I’ve used a similar treatment.