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The popular style of photographing on food blogs on Instagram and even in recipes books – “chiaroscuro” photography (also known as “dark photography” or literally “chiaroscuro”) is often distinguished by strong shadows and dramatic mood of the pictures. However, what really characterizes this style is the skillful interaction between deep shadows and light areas that serve to highlight an object. Japanese food photographer Reiko Nanto shares the tricks of creating mouth-watering images using the chiaroscuro-style photo capture method.

Dramatic chiaroscuro style food photography
EOS 5D Mark II / EF85 mm f / 1.2 L II USM / FL: 85 mm / Manual exposure (f / 13, 0.3 s, EV ± 0) / ISO 320 / WB: Manual

The biscuits had the theme “Alice in Wonderland”, which inspired the photographer to stylize the shoot after drinking tea in the forest. Reiko used a black reflector (also known as a black flag) in order to emphasize shadows and a dark background. Note that areas with white glaze are sufficiently illuminated – otherwise the image may look dull. To prevent the cookies from looking too flat, the photographer raised it with some stylized supports and took off with side lighting.

Tip 1: control both light and shadow

Do not forget that chiaroscuro means “chiaroscuro” and not just “shadow”. Although this style is commonly referred to as “dark photography,” you won’t get a successful chiaroscuro shot just by underexposing it. The beauty of such an image lies in the skillful use of the contrast between light and deep shadows.

Subtle details in lighting are important. For a good chiaroscuro-style shot, you need to make sure:

that your lighting is soft enough to highlight a three-dimensional object
and that the transitions between light and shadow areas are smooth and gradual.
To achieve these goals, you need to manipulate light and shadow. Reiko does this by creating paths that determine how light penetrates the image, and uses a black reflective panel (or even several) to create enough shadow on the image to sense tension.


Side lighting: This angle of light makes it easier to create more vivid contrasts of light tones.

Dark color background / background elements: Dark colors absorb light and add shadows, perfect for giving a chiaroscuro look.

Successful shot

Dramatic chiaroscuro style food photography
EOS-1D X / EF28-70mm f / 2.8L IS USM / FL: 70 mm / Manual exposure (f / 6.3, 1/50 sec, EV ± 0) / ISO 500 / WB: 4700K

This monochromatic image was obtained with the stylization of a white snowball cookie, a black tray, cutlery and a gray base. Lateral illumination on the right smooth transitions between light and shadow areas, directing the viewer’s attention to cookies and a textured base.

Lighting setup

A: A hole has been created for the entrance of light.

B: Creates shadows and tonal transitions between light and shadow at the base.

C: Use a black reflector to absorb light and add shadows.

Dramatic chiaroscuro style food photography

The photographer used black reflectors to block the area around the subject. They also serve to enhance shadows on the subject. The light was directed at the scenery through the hole on A.

Extra tip. You want to create a muted atmosphere. Too much light will lead to sharp contrasts between areas of light and shadow. Use a lace curtain or diffuser to soften the light.

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The popular style of photographing on food blogs on Instagram and even in recipes books - “chiaroscuro” photography (also known as “dark photography” or literally “chiaroscuro”) is often distinguished by…