The Ultimate P52 | Week 10 | Shadows

Let’s talk about shadows in our work. Newer photographers are often afraid of shadows, thinking they will detract from the subject of their photos. Often having bad experiences from on board flash and dappled light, many photographers seek out flat, even lighting. Flat lighting is safe, and it even has a very distinct role in portraiture at times, but flat light is typically boring. In portraiture, flat light is revered for its ability to even out skin tones and minimize blemishes and wrinkles. It is great for older subjects, particularly women, who are apprehensive with aging.

Shadows, however, have a decided place in photographs. Shadows can both highlight textures and minimize imperfections; shadows add depth and shaping to an image or subject. Depending on the the size and length of shadows, they can indicate time of day or year within an image. They can add structure or visual depth throughout a frame, and they can actually be the subject of a photo, such as with silhouettes.

Harsh shadows come from a small light source, such as the sun or a flash without a modifier. When working with harsh shadows, you will want to be sure to meter for the highlights, which will cause your shadows to fall to complete blackness while not blowing out (over exposing) your subject. If you are not familiar with metering for the highlights, just make sure that the brightest part of your image is not so overexposed that you lose details. There is a large dynamic range with a full sun type of image that our eyes can see and our brains can process, but that is largely out of the scope of being able to capture with a camera. In these cases, just be sure not to lose details in your highlights/whites and allows the shadows to work as a visual framing or structure to your image.

In the images below, the shadows offer a lot of structure to the images; in the first, the leaves on the tree and the shadows on the ground from said leaves create a framing effect around the church. The two fence images have shadows that reinforce the leading lines, and the interior room image has an increased visual interest from the shadow cast by the window muntins. 

In this set, the shadows themselves become the subject, outlining profiles and shapes blocking the light source.

Shadows can add extra visual weight to surfaces that at a different time of day would be flat and uninteresting.

Soft shadows come from a large light source – think a large picture window or a flash/strobe with a very large softbox attached. The light is dispersed over a large area and it casts very soft shadows that wrap around your subject. These soft shadows can ground objects in your image and help to give them a three dimensional quality. 

I like to use light from the side in much of my work to add a sense of depth within an image; light that is coming from above and beside the subject will cast flattering shadows in a directional manner that contour and add shape to the subject. These shadows can be harsh or soft depending on the light source, and they might be so soft that you don’t even realize they are there at first. By studying an image and determining where the shadows are (or are not) and their softness or hardness, you can get a very good sense as to the overall light source and quality for the image, even if you can’t see the actual source at all. 

When working with shadows in your work, it’s important to be aware of the inverse square law. The closer the subject is to the light, the faster the light will fall off and turn to blackness. I use this method all the time in my own work, for both macro and portraiture. By placing my subject very close to the light source, whether a window or a softbox, I can illuminate just my subject and have the rest of the frame turn to dark. This is great for hiding clutter in a room! Or just to add some drama overall to the image. This is a great trick for making a white wall turn dark gray or black in an image, especially if your subject is pulled away some from the wall. Because this week isn’t a lesson specifically for turning backgrounds black, I will link a separate article that explains this concept more in depth if you want to work with it. This, however, is not required for this week, and you can use whatever kind of shadows you want in your explorations.

The first four images of the set below were taken in in all white rooms, but due to the inverse square law the walls have turned dark gray or black. The fifth image uses the same principle to create a silhouette effect due to exposing properly for the sky outside the window, and the last image was taken with a strobe light to create just a small sliver of light. When working with human subjects, be aware of how the light you are using casts shadows on their faces; one trick for shooting in full sun is to have the subject face the light directly from the side, or to shoot from behind the subject to avoid having light directly on their face at all.

I am excited to see how you all can use shadows to bring more depth to your images this week.

Follow along with my Project 52 in 2023

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