Light and Shadow: Two Powerful Photography Tools

Quality photography relies heavily on light. The very meaning of the
word “photography” underlines the importance of finding the perfect
lighting balance, as it stems from two Greek words: “phos” (meaning
light) and “graphis” (which translates into drawing). But despite the
fact that most photographers would argue endlessly over the fact that
lighting is everything, there is exquisite creative potential in the
lack of this highly praised element.
Though often overlooked, shadows can
only exist in the presence of light. Oxymoronic, I know, but light would
be nothing were it not for the shadows it casts. Learning how to
manipulate shadows and seamlessly incorporate them into your composition
is an essential element of any photographer’s skillset.
A photograph of a bicycle casting a shadow on the wall
With that in mind, grab your camera, at least one subject and let’s get started!

The Importance of Shadows

We have to stop thinking of shadows as
mere dark masses bordering the light. For without shadows, there would
be nothing to draw attention to the light we speak so highly of. When
correctly using shadows, photographers discover unique opportunities.
Before getting down and dirty with techniques you are not familiar with,
make sure to visit the exhibitions of experienced photographers and draw inspiration from there.
Creating context and adding drama to a
composition is one of the main uses of shadows. Viewers are naturally
drawn to areas in your picture where high tonal contrasts exist and such
contrasts are impossible without shadows. As such, light by itself
could never be able to create the subtle nuances that shadows make
Beautiful composition of the sun shining through the branches of a tree. The branches cast shadows on the snow.
This exquisite photograph, for
instance, perfectly uses the juxtaposition shadows and sepia tones to
add warmth to an otherwise chilly winter day.
Apart from creating contrast, shadows
also allow photographers to focus a viewer’s attention to what is most
important in the composition. On the one hand, shadows can be
manipulated to remove irrelevant details from portions of the photograph
that aren’t as important as others.
Shadow photography portrait showcasing a beautiful model whose face is contoured by cones of shadow.
This photographs creates a striking
contrast between the model’s eyes and the rest of her features, which
are hidden in cones of shadows falling at different angles.
Photographers can also use shadows to
highlight the model’s qualities: from the striking innocence of a
child’s face to the subtle sensuality of a female model, everything lies
in correct positioning and the artist’s unique view.
two shadow portraits of an innocent child and a sensual woman, both highlighted by correct shadow placement
Another exquisite use of shadow allows
photographers to reveal texture. Such images are obtained when the
illuminating body (in most cases the sun) is found at a low angle to the
horizon, so as to cast shadows across the terrain. Such compositions
allow for the textures of certain objects to be emphasized.
use of shadow photography to highlight sand texture

Correctly Including Shadows in Your Composition

Photographing shadows isn’t the easiest
task, especially since most settings will cause the targeted shadows to
come out too light. Capturing shadows involves a series of tweaks which may contradict a camera’s essential purpose (which is to expose the film to enough light to make the detail visible).
So when you’ve set your mind on shadow photography, be sure to:
  • Switch from automatic to manual mode. Not a beginner photographer’s
    best friend, manual mode allows you to set the aperture time, ISO value
    and shutter speed. As such, you are in full control of what your camera
    is capturing. Beginners may copy the values from these settings from
    those used by your automatic mode. Tweak and alter each individual
    setting to identify precisely what you need.
  • Use the exposure lockdown feature when available. DSLR cameras often
    include an exposure lock feature in their settings menu. Experiment
    with this feature to include that part of your scene which doesn’t lie
    in the shadow and use the automatic exposure calculators to obtain
    exposed highlights contrasting with deep shadows.
  • Consider exposure value compensation. Digital cameras allow
    photographers to quickly assess their work and if your composition seems
    to be too bright, slight exposure value tweaks may correct the issue.
    Lower exposure values to deepen shadows or increase it if your
    composition is too dark.
  • Bracketing helps. An alternative is to bracket your image by taking
    successive shots at different exposures. Although high-range cameras
    (and several mid-range ones) include BKT buttons which have this feature
    build in, you can achieve the same results with lower-range cameras by
    simply using manual mode and taking different shots at alternating
    exposure value compensations.


Tips and Tricks for Shadow Photography

Now that we’ve gotten the technical aspects out of the way, let’s discuss some tips to help you with your creative process. Shadows are excellent starting points especially when you lack a muse.
With that in mind, please remember that a
shadow is not the same thing as a silhouette. While silhouettes
represent the outline or the dark shape of a specific object or being
against a lighter background, shadows represent the shapes or areas
formed when objects come between the illuminating body and a surface.
Most photographers find their
inspiration looking up or around, so paying attention to the sidewalk or
the ground will be a new experience, especially if you haven’t worked
with shadows before. But, though unsurprising, you’re only going to find
shadows on the ground or against walls. Start actively searching for
shadows and seeking inspiration in places yet undiscovered.
stunning contrast between the shadows cast by the building's columns and the girl dancing between them
The human eye enjoys symmetry and shadow
patterns create unique compositions which are particularly appealing.
Combining shadows and patterns can yield sublime results, so shift
angles and experiment with positions to see whether you can capture
interesting patterns.
Monochrome and black-and-white
compositions are also a good option especially when the shadow you’re
photographing is the center-piece of your composition. By removing the
colors which would otherwise compete with your viewer’s perception,
you’re setting yourself up for great results. Strong, graphical shapes
fare best in monochrome, especially when captured from unexpected
Numerous artists have played with shadow
compositions. Denis Buchel, for instance, recently won an award for his
divine composition focusing on Istanbul’s dim sunset light and the
long, converging shadows cast by the people and trees it encountered.
stunning photograph of a hot Istanbul day with converging shadows
Shadow photography is a subtle art and
requires a trained hand. It will take time to learn precisely how to
incorporate the various elements, shapes and textures to obtain the
perfect picture, so give yourself the time to get there. And allow
yourself to experiment (even when the experiments don’t produce the
results you’d expect). It’s all part of the learning process!