How to Shoot a Clear and Obscure (Chiaroscuro) Photography Composition

To make better photos, play between clear and obscure:


There is an Italian word called, ‘chiaroscuro‘: which means the play between dark-and-light (also known as contrast).

The words are:

  • chiaro (clear, bright — from the latin ‘clarus’)
  • oscuro (dark, obscure– from the latin ‘obscurus’)

Why clear and obscure?

This is my idea:

To make better pictures, use aesthetics which obscure some parts of your photos (dark shadows), and parts of your photos which are clear.


I love film noir, especially Orson Welles films (like Citizen Kane).

When watching a lot of these films, I love the obscured smoke or light (from Citizen Kane):

Especially note when the faces are obscured:

Now the question is this:

Why do obscured faces or scenes interest us?

My theory:

When your pictures are partially obscured, it forces the viewer to use their imagination to ‘fill in the blanks’ of the scene.

This causes your viewers to be more engaged with your scenes — and thus, truly analyze your pictures more!

Obscured faces

When you obscure the faces of your subjects, the photos become more mysterious. The more mysterious your pictures, the more you engage your viewer!

A simple way to obscure your subjects is to shoot with -1 or -2 exposure-compensation, or increase the ‘contrast’ or the ‘blacks’ slider in post-processing. Another thing you can do in post-processing is to “burn” (darken) the faces of your subjects, like I did in this picture:

However you can see if I increase the brightness, the information of the light on his face is still here:

Aesthetically, of course the second picture is uglier. Why? Not enough darkness and mystery.

Selective obscuring

Another idea:

Obscure part of the subject’s face– with their hands, or visual elements.

For example the picture above with the woman covering her face with her hands. The mystery of her hand-gesture obscures part of her face, which makes it more interesting to look at.

Or note this picture of this woman I photographed in Tokyo — her face is obscured, but her eye is clear:

Or another picture– when you obscure the face of the subject, and only show their hands:


Practical takeaways:

  1. Obscure part of your subject’s face.
  2. Make your photos more mysterious by determining what NOT to show in your picture.
  3. Try shooting high-contrast black and white, and process with ERIC KIM Monochrome 1600 preset to achieve this mysterious high-contrast black and white imagery.
  4. Use a flash to make some parts of your photo clear and visible. Also experiment with using a slower shutter-speed with a flash (like 1/15th of a second).
  5. Watch film noir to study ‘Chiaroscuro’ (contrast between dark and light). For example, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, or ‘The Killing’ by Stanley Kubrick.


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