Chiaroscuro portraits by Alex Huff. Click photo to see more on 500px.

PixSylated’s Inaugural Guest Blog: I’m blessed to have a wide circle of friends who are as obsessed with light and shadow as I am. From time to time, I’ll be turning PixSylated over to one of these friends for a guest blog. I’m thrilled that the first photographer in this new series is Alex Huff, a talented shooter in San Francisco.  (If you’ve been hanging around PixSylated for a while, you already know Alex from this post last August.) Alex graciously agreed to share her secrets about how she creates her chiaroscuro portraits, which have been attracting a lot of attention on the web lately. Enjoy!—Syl

by Alex Huff

The sisters. Click photo to see larger.

My chiaroscuro (Italian for “light/dark”) collection is a painterly photographic ode to the men and women in my life, beginning with my circle of friends. My very first images in this series are of two sisters whose mother taught me everything I know about art history. The portraits were initially for her and also a personal experiment for me to see if I could create a painterly portrait. I have a great love for Caravaggio so I knew I wanted the subject to glow against a kind of shroud of inky blackness. Hair, eyes, little pieces of textured clothing–these were the things I wanted to highlight.

Fortunately for me, after people saw my portraits of the sisters they all wanted one of these tenebristic closeups. I love how they all look as a group so I am trying to create as many as I can. Other photographers have wanted to know how I create these images, intrigued by the soft-yet-rapid fallout of light and their moody old-world feel.


These are 1-light portraits that can be done in any small space. I use the following items:

  • Elinchrom Monolight (such as D-Lite 2 or BX-Ri) typically shot at the lowest possible power setting, 2.3-3.3. Small flashes (Speedlites) can easily be used as well.
  • Softbox, wide and deep, like the Elinchrom 39″ Deep Octabox
  • A white reflector
  • A short telephoto lens, such as an 85mm or 135mm.

Softbox shown at left and reflector at right. Click photo to see larger.

The softbox is placed very close to the subject, slightly above them and pointed down, starting at usually around a 45 degree angle and feathering more or less to taste. My softbox is large relative to the size of my models and the closer I can bring that light source to their faces the softer the light and the softer the falloff of light. Generally speaking, the softer your light source the more gently it will fall off into the shadows. Because I am voluntarily limiting my scene to just the face, I can bring my softbox very close to the edge of the frame and take full advantage of these soft light-to-dark transitions.

A reflector is placed on the subject’s opposite side. I want to avoid having half of my subject’s face in complete darkness but I don’t need very much light to prevent that–I just need a touch of fill. One could introduce a second strobe or a small flash to provide fill light. However, using a reflector is not only simple to operate but it is also very good at reminding you to think about the direction of your key light and how it responds to large, white reflective surfaces.

For my background, I use a simple black or gray backdrop and seat the subject very close to it. Because I am not exposing for anything other than my immediate subject, I could place my subject at just about any distance from the backdrop and get the same effect. My studio is in San Francisco and is very small. Backdrop placement is more a matter of necessity than of design. This portrait set up is a good one for those with little-to-no space to work in.


Left: RAW capture. Right: after processing in Lightroom and Nik Color Efex Pro. Click photo to see larger.

I typically shoot these portraits at ISO 100, at 1/160″-1/250″, and between f/5.6-f/11. I almost always want to start with a completely black scene in the way a painter begins with a blank canvas. This is most quickly achieved by taking my ISO all the way down and brining my shutter as high up as my light source allows. All of my light is coming from one key source, in most cases an Elinchrom monolight, and I can fine tune my exposure either through the strobe or stopping my aperture up or down.

I want as much of the subject in focus as possible–even the ears–so I shoot at higher f-stops but not, of course, too high because of the softening effects of diffraction. My goal is to try and maintain a certain amount of crispness in the image while also avoiding hard lines with light and shadows in a kind of sfumato, or smokey, style that is reminiscent of old paintings.

For this example I shot at ISO 100, 1/200″, f/11 and received a completely black scene. This is good. I always want to start in complete darkness. Once I turn the strobe on and take the first shot the exposure is typically where I want it and, if it is not, I adjust my f/stop slightly. From here I adjust the feathering of my key light and the bounce of my reflector.


I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Nik Software Color Efex Pro for all of my editing. Lightroom is my workhorse where I make my crops, correct blemishes, and sometimes adjust exposure or white balance. It is my “clean up” software of choice.

I use Nik Software to be creative. For this particular example, I used the Fuji Superia 100 film filter and a touch of Glamour Glow from Color Efex Pro. The film filter adds richness and the right amount of grain to the image, which I feel is essential for getting the painterly look to the image. Glamour Glow brightens and smooths skin without the “plastic” look. If I didn’t add a little film grain in post I feel the portraits would look a little too clean and modern. After I add my filters, I may go back and bump the clarity in the clothing in Lightroom.

  • Switch up your key and your reflector half way through the shoot. Your model’s best side may be the one previously stuck in the shadows.
  • Positioning your model at a 45 degree angle is safe and flattering but straight-on shots can be powerful.
  • Don’t be afraid to place your key light and reflector very close to your subject.
  • Shoot tight in-camera rather than relying on cropping your image in post.

Alex Huff self-portrait. Click photo to see larger.

I am a studio portrait photographer in San Francisco by night and a product photographer and copy writer at by day. I have photographed events and portraits for Google, Zenfolio, Formula Drift, and Global Rally Cross/X-Games. I have also modeled on more than one occasion for Joe McNally and Syl Arena, from whom I learned lighting and model directing basics. You can follow me on Behance and 500px or circle me on G+.


22 Responses to Guest Blog—Alex Huff on Creating Chiaroscuro

  1. Thank you for sharing this invaluable Portrait Photography technique.

  2. Thank you SYL for bringing us this interview with Alex! I thoroughly enjoyed it. I must admit that I had never heard of Alex before reading this article, but I will now start following her work, for sure. Having Alex as your first guest sets the bar really high right out of the gate for your guest blog series. I look forward to the next one. Definitely.

    Thank you ALEX for showing us this technique. Your photos are captivating. I love the lighting and I greatly appreciate all the tips and the explanation of the lighting set-up. I will be trying this out for myself.

    Thanks guys!!!

  3. sally perreten says:

    This was a great article, Syl. And your blog is terrific – a superb balance of informative stuff. It’s an excellent way to continue learning from you.

  4. greg says:

    Thank you. What a great insight into the methods. And for me this is great as its possible in a small space and with speedlights / softbox.
    I know what im going to be doing all weekend now!!!!

    Thank you

  5. Brian Carey says:

    Great guest blog post Syl. Alex your portraits are stunning thanks for the BTS. I am going to try this myself.

  6. Donna says:

    I love shadow and light contrast in images. These are wonderful and the article is a great explaination of the process.

  7. Great post. Thank you for the tips!

  8. dvg says:

    yes they do make a lovely group when seen together! I love the lighting and especially the posing of the faces,(not too much head turn which would display too much white of the eye..).but, the dark tonal merge in the example where the hair merges with the dark back ground turns me off. even just s hint of separation would be a terrific touch.

  9. Robin Browne says:

    Informative and direct. Thank you.

  10. Steve says:

    Very unusual, but compelling effect. Upon see these I first thought that they were stand in 3d Models by a very talented 3D artist, used to demonstrate a lighting technique. I very nearly passed by very quickly. But something about them intrigued me enough want to read further. A good job, very well done. Thanks for sharing.

  11. […] We start this week with another bump for our very own Alex Huff. She was Syl Arena’s very first guest blogger, and wrote about her chiaroscuro series of portraits. […]

  12. I love this style of portrait and it so nice to read a well thought process of how to achieve it…will definitely be trying this soon!

  13. Mike Dooley says:

    Great article Syl, and I love the images Alex! I love the feel of them, really intriguing! Thanks for sharing your technique!

  14. Dave Claiborne says:

    I’m not much of a portrait shooter, but I found your approach quite interesting. Also, you did an excellent job of explaining your techniques in clear & concise manner.

  15. Chiaroscuro, tenebristic, sfumato, beautiful words and beautiful images. It truly does pay for photographers to study art history.

  16. […] Guest Blog—Alex Huff on Creating Chiaroscuro, , PixSylated. [Blog] 27/02/2013. Available at [Accessed 25/06/2013]. ) Form: Pic […]

  17. chiaroscuro says:

    […]…uro-portraits/…-lighting.html Shooting with "fullframe equivalent 64 megapixels" 😉 Blog Fotoclub Met citaat reageren […]

  18. […] tips from expert portrait photographer, Alexandria Huff.  As the photographic brain behind the On Creating Chiaroscuro, Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses, and Transitioning from […]

  19. Beautiful photography! Thank you for inspiring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *