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 possible.

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 angles.

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.

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!

Photo credits: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7

4 thoughts on “Light and Shadow: Two Powerful Photography Tools”

  1. Lots of people who are new to photography usually are very quickly attracted to the dark power of Photoshop, and like that they are missing the point of what makes good photography which then can be tweaked or enhanced in Photoshop – yes shadow and light are the most powerful tool we can have and is up to us how we balance them.


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