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Studying past Masters - Gerrit van Honthorst, pt1

The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst
The art world is rich with educational possibilities for a photographer. The grand masters in particular. All one has to do is be open to the potential lessons.

One of the more influential of the art movements in terms of lesson values to a beginner photographer is the Tenebrism style of painting of which the term Chiaroscuro is most commonly associated with it. I won't get into a long explanation of tenebrism and the subsequent chiaroscuro movement here as there are plenty of resources you can use to research on your own. I will, however, explain some of the elements that make it a valuable tool for photographers.

For this series of articles I will be referring to the image shown above. It is entitled 'The Matchmaker' by Gerrit van Honthorst a Dutch painter in the 17th century who was greatly influenced by the works of Caravaggio and other artists of the time who painted in the chiaroscuro style. Although he didn't paint exclusively in this style, I feel he refined the illuminated by a single light look much better than many of his contemporaries. His scenes had a believability to them and didn't appear to be forced or exaggerated.

The term tenebrism literally means murky and is a style of painting that uses heavy shadows and bright areas of light to direct the viewer's eye through the painting in order to tell a story. Sounds familiar? We already mentioned chiaroscuro, which is a refined style of tenebrism, but you should also be familiar with the term film noir. Here is another term that has it's roots in this style of painting; Rembrandt lighting.

This use of lighting to drive the story or direct the viewer's eyes is what we as photographers try to achieve. It is because of these similarities that I feel 'The Matchmaker' is an ideal study for many of the fundamentals of photography. In this, and the following articles, I will discuss lighting techniques, composition and posing in greater detail. It is my hope that you will understand the value that can be found in the study of many of the paintings from past masters, not just this one.


Light, or the manipulation of light and shadow, is the foundation of great photography. Light creates shadow and shadow allows us to see the shape and form of a three dimensional object on a flat, two dimensional plane. Without light there can be no photo.

Relative light placement and fall off

The signature look of chiaroscuro is the use of a singular light source (although not exclusively) like a candle or lantern, a torch or campfire or divine light, illuminating the subjects.

In The matchmaker we clearly see that our three subjects are placed around a single candle. Take note of the wall in the background. Notice the light fall off the further the light gets from the candle. That fall off is also reflected on all three subjects, but is most noticeable on the man at left and the woman. Compare the brightness of the light on the woman's face to that of the standing man.

Lighting diagram

At this point, also take notice of the different types of light falling on the various people in the scene. We have one single light source but that light creates three very distinct looks. Here is another way of looking at it.

A lighting diagram is a method of notation many studio photographers create to document a particular lighting setup. If we were to draw a lighting diagram of The Matchmaker it would look something like the diagram at right. To understand the description explained above just look at the light placement in relation to the individual subjects and the camera. You can clearly see how that single light creates three different types of light all by careful placement.

This placement of the subjects within the scene is done very deliberately in order to convey mood and drive the story. First, notice that the two figures closest to the candle interact quite differently with it. The man in front is almost completely blocking our view of the light and his body is back lit by the candle causing the majority of his body to be in deep shadow. The woman, however, is short lit by the candle as it is placed in front and to one side of her.

Visual point of focus based on use of light
Extreme contrast

Reducing this scene down to two tones of black and white we clearly see where the painter wants us to look. The light is used to pull the eye into the scene and keep it within the confines of the main subject.

Now look at the man at far left. Being further from the light he is in the periphery of the fall off with the candle light just barely illuminating him. He is also on the same plane as the light thereby creating some nice rim lighting or side lighting.

By analyzing both the use of light and placement of subjects in relation to the candle we can determine the order of importance of the subjects. The woman is the principle subject and main focus of the painting since she is well lit. The standing man at left is secondary while the silhouetted back is third. Keep this in mind as we discuss posing later.

Visual point of focus based on use of light
Practical contrast

Reducing an image to simple tones is a nice trick I tend to teach and use quite often in determining visual focus in an image. It strips away color and reduces the image down to luminosity values. While the above image is extreme (reduced to two colors) a more realistic method is the one at left. In this case I reduced it to 11 levels of luminosity, which I'll explain in a bit. This gives the same result as the black and white version with some additional benefits.

Separation of elements

In order for individual elements to stand out there needs to be some form of edge definition. In illustration, this separation is achieved in two ways; contrast of light and contrast of color. The easiest is to maintain a contrast of light or, in simpler terms, light against dark or dark against light transition. The same holds true in photography and is specially true in portraiture. It is also key in black and white photography. Background lights, hair lights, kickers, and other secondary lights are often carefully placed in order to enhance edges. If you follow the pattern in from the upper left edge you can clearly see a light to dark, light to dark progression. In particular I want you to really notice how subtle some of these tonal shifts are from one to the other. You will also notice something interesting that sometimes throws beginners off. A light value against a dark value can change to a dark value against another lighter value.

Light to dark transitions leading into the main subject

For an example of this let's follow the image in from the top left corner. We enter the scene against the back wall which is illuminated by the candle. Even though we would define it as a dark tone it is actually a light tone when compared against the dark tone of the back of the standing man's head. Remember we are dealing with a low key image and tonal values are relative.

From the head we come to the face, a light tone. From the face we return to the back wall which is now a dark tone. Now for the switch. Against this dark tone we see the back part of the other man's hat plumage. That part of the feather is dark compared to the wall which, in itself, is dark compared to the standing man's face. Here you can see how one tone can become both light or dark depending on its neighboring tone.

Continuing, the dark edge of the feather is against the light of the inner part of the feather then back to dark against the seated man's back lit body. Here we come across another switch. The seated man's face is silhouetted against the bright part of the wall thereby the wall is considered lighter of the two, but against the brightly lit face of the girl it is also considered dark.

The takeaway from all this is that light and shadow, when properly placed, adds drama and separation of the different elements within a scene. As you learned, sometimes that interplay can be very subtle. If you keep this light/dark, dark/light principle in mind it will help you determine light placement. Often it is a simple matter of shifting or swiveling a light a degree or two to achieve proper separation.

Metering for the light

Although a painting, we can see exposure similarities as if this had been a photograph. The reduced dynamic range is of interest to note because in this situation the compressed range is purposeful. Van Honthorst painted the reduced range. This is interesting to me both as a photographer and illustrator considering that most painters prior to the were painting portraits with brighter lighting.

While I haven't mentioned this previously, keep in mind that we are looking at a digital reproduction of this painting. Actually a compressed digital reproduction as this is a JPG at a greatly reduced size. Even though it's not the most ideal representation of the painting we can still look at the histogram and compare it to a digital photograph.

A glimpse at the histogram shows the heavy stacking to the left indicative of a low key image. In a portrait situation, metering would be on the main subject. In this case, metering would be from either the chest area or the face of the girl in order to render proper skin tones and obtain proper exposure for the scene. Metering in any of the shadow areas would render an over exposure, rendering the shadows brighter and reducing the chiaroscuro effect.

When using a reflective meter (camera meter) in a low key situation remember that different metering modes will deliver varying results. Spot metering will give the best exposure reading as it allows you to concentrate just on the area of light.

A view through the zone system

While many digital photographers don't give credence to the zone system, I thought it may be fun to do a zone analysis of the painting. Earlier I mentioned reducing an image to black and white tones to determine a visual point of focus. In that reduction I purposely reduced the image down to 11 levels of tone. This allows me to analyze the image using the zone system should I choose to.

Understanding the zone system and how to use it in the field to determine proper exposure is a technique I advocate everyone should learn. If for any other reason than to comprehend the interaction of light with film/sensor within a scene and how it can be manipulated in post processing. There are many resources online about the zone system. Check them out.


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