Chiaroscuro

It started with a tulip and an idea.

One of the things I love about Spring – like most of us, I imagine – is the return of the light. After the gloom and darkness of winter, the days start to lengthen and grow brighter. I wondered how you might show this movement from darkness into light photographically. ‘Movement’ suggested the idea of ICM, intentional camera movement. ‘Darkness into light’ suggested a white flower against a black background. These two things came together in a sequence of images, which I call Chiaroscuro.

Chiaroscuro #8

Fujifilm X-T3, zoom lens 27–80mm full-frame equivalent at 30mm equiv. 3 sec at f20

This image comes from a sequence of 70 or so I made in a makeshift home studio. For me it sums up the idea of moving from darkness into light. We see the tulip, with its shape slightly fragmented but still clearly recognisable, caught in a flow of light moving across the frame from bottom left to top right. The background is black, so that the ‘subject’ of the photograph is – for me anyway – light itself. When you look at the ‘light’ in the image it seems to flow in curved waves, some brighter, some duller. The tulip flower seems partly transparent, partly opaque.

Technically, such images are not particularly demanding. I made an initial measurement of incident light falling on the subject using a handheld meter, but you could do the same using the in-camera meter. Then I calculated what exposure I would need to use for a ‘straight’ still life shot. From here there are a number of possible routes. For this kind of work you’re aiming for an exposure of between 2 and 4 seconds. If the light is quite low, as it was in this case, then you can just use a low ISO combined with a high f number to slow things down. Alternatively you can use a neutral density filter or filters to reduce the amount of light coming into the camera.  Then you can either set the whole thing up as a fully manual shot, or set the ISO and aperture leaving the camera to work out the speed.

Judging the start and finish points for the image is a matter of experiment. For some shots, there was a clear direction of travel, as in this image: moving upwards from left to right. You also need to decide how much of the time available should be spent on which part of the subject. Here I started with the glass vase and moved fairly quickly to the flower head and lingered on that until the end of the exposure. The swift movement from the vase produced the diagonal streaks, while the slightly shaky concentration on the flower made it recognisable, with those translucent and opaque areas.

3 seconds doesn’t sound very long, but in fact it’s plenty of time to achieve a variety of different effects. And remember that while the exposure is taking place you can’t see anything at all through the viewfinder! So there’s an interesting mix of failures and happy accidents.

I checked the images in camera from time to time and adjusted exposure and movement as required. I wanted to make some images darker and some brighter. At the same time I needed to keep the background as black as possible. To achieve this, for the darker images I made the lighter parts of the tulip relatively small within the frame, and the opposite for the lighter images.

Fairly quickly I came to the conclusion that these were essentially monochrome images. The only colours present were the green of the stem and the blue streaks coming from reflections in the glass vase. So I went across to Silver Efex Pro 2 and completed the processing there, accentuating contrast and detail further until I was satisfied that the image showed what I had set out to achieve.

You can see all 12 of the final selection of images I selected for Chiaroscuro on my website:

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