While it may be tempting to focus all of your photography upon the quality of light and where it falls, shadows are actually just as important. It’s shadows that give us depth perception—both literally and psychologically. It’s shadows that shape the light, direct our attention to the light, and help us to see in more than two dimensions. That’s why an image with more highlights and whites than shadows and blacks will often appear washed out and flat.
With this in mind, here are five ways to use shadows to liven up your photography.
Shadows are one of the primary means of directing attention to areas we want the viewer to focus on. They remove detail from the parts of the image that are less important and point the eye to the places of greater importance. You can even shape shadows the same way you shape light—with snoots, barn doors, and really anything with form that will cast a shadow.
Beyond shaping the shadows, you can also use them to surround a point of light, causing the viewer’s eye to go straight to areas that are lit. Take the image below—the main points of interest, the face and the belly, are completely surrounded by shadow, ensuring that our attention stays focused only on those places.
Photo credit: Janko Ferlic
The same is true of the subject below. The shadows surround all but the area where the photographer wants the viewer to focus.
Photo credit: Peter Forster
If you’ve studied the art of portraiture at all, you already know the importance of where a shadow lies and whether it has a soft edge or hard. And while most portrait photographers tend towards softer light and shadows that taper off, harsher (non-diffused) light with a sudden drop off will add a lot more drama to the image.
In the image below, starker shadows are used to bring out the intensity of the subject’s expression.
Photo credit: Trevor Cole
The same is true of this image, where the photographer uses even starker shadows and cover a full half of the subject’s face:
Another creative way to use shadows is to integrate them into your subject. This works particularly well in black and white, as shapes, tones, and texture are more vital to a B/W image, and shadows are key to each of these.
Photo credit: C. Chapman
One of the more challenging yet creative ways in which to use shadows is to make them the subject of your photo. The angle of the sun (or other light source) will be especially important here, as will your composition. One thing to keep in mind though, is that shadows are not silhouettes, but rather the shadow cast by a light source. Silhouette photography is something different.
Photo credit: Jakub Jacobsky
This photo has some curious angles to the shadows, but exemplifies the creative effect photographing shadows can have:
Photo Credit: Tom Barrett
One thing the judges for the National Geographic photo contests often stress, is how they want the photo to somehow tell a story. Now obviously, what each viewer draws from an image will be up to them, but that doesn’t stop it from being clear that there is a story happening.
For example, in the image below one can come up with a burglar story, a stalker story, a peeping-Tom story, a curious-child story, and many others. (Those were just the first that came to mind.) But there’s clearly a story here.
Photo credit: Adam Bendjaima
Here the story would center around the woman leaving. The composition of the photo begs us to wonder why.
Photo credit: Martino Pietropoli
Using any or all of these techniques will not only liven up your photography, but also teach you much more about using light. So have fun, experiment well, and create some great shadow-filled shots!
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