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Photography shadow and light

Shadow Photography (8 Great Tips for Using Light and Shadows)

Shadow photography can make a scene more dramatic if you know how to use them. Because photography is all about light, knowing when to block some of that light can add a dynamic feel to your photos. And sometimes, you don’t even choose to block that light. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice! So read on to learn how to use shadows to your advantage in your photography.

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Here Are Our 8 Best Tips for Shadow Photography

In this article, we have a few tricks to show you to help you photograph shadows better.

1. Don’t Wait for the Golden Hour

Golden hour refers to the short period when the sun is low on the horizon and casts a “golden” glow. However, the term is deceiving because it typically occurs about 20 minutes (not an hour) after sunrise or before sunset.

Despite the time constraint, don’t hesitate to shoot at sunrise or sunset if you want dramatic shadow photos. Due to the low position of the sun during this time, it creates long shadows that look more prominent in your image.

The golden hour also provides a perfect opportunity to shoot silhouettes. When the sun is directly behind any object you’re photographing, it naturally creates backlighting. But the contrast it produces eliminates the details in your subject and causes it to look black.

2. Shoot in Harsh Sunlight

You don’t always have to wait for the golden hour to end up with cool photos. Sometimes, shooting in harsh sunlight can actually create dramatic results for shadow photography.

Typically, we wouldn’t really recommend taking photos when the sun is high in the sky. It often creates undesirable results because it’s usually too bright and creates strong contrasts.

But for shadow photography, those two elements are precisely what you want to achieve incredible results.
The harsh sunlight also works well whenever you’re shooting architecture and other geometrical structures. The sharp shadows the sun creates add dimension to these their framework which makes them look quite dramatic.

So walk around your area when the sun is high up in the sky. See how it interacts with the buildings around you. It won’t take long to see shadows casting all sorts of patterns that look pleasing to the eyes.

Just remember not to take photos at noon. Since the sun is directly above you, the shadows it creates typically look unappealing. Aim for taking pictures before or after 12 PM when the sun is at an angle. (10 AM or 3 PM are often ideal times).

3. Experiment With Artificial Light

Photo by Jack Gibson

If you miss the daylight, don’t worry. You can also create interesting shadows at night using artificial lights. In fact, you have more freedom to play around with them than with sunlight since they’re everywhere and they come in different colors.

One of the most fascinating light sources you can try for shadow photography is street lights. They may seem ordinary, but they can be magical in certain situations, especially if it’s foggy or misty outside.

But that doesn’t mean you have to wait for inclement weather to create cool photos with street lights.
Even during an ordinary night, the limited beam of light they produce cast breathtaking shadows on objects below and around them.

Apart from street lights, you also have neon lights. They’re bright, they’re colorful, and the shadows they create always remind you of the sci-fi thrillers you love.

Walk around downtown and you’re bound to encounter a few signs worthy to shoot. Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself with just street lights and neon lights. Just about any type of light source will do. As long as it’s bright enough and shines at a right angle, you can use it for shadow photography.

4. Use Shapes to Create Fun Shadows

When photographing shadows, be conscious of how they appear in your image. Are they easily recognizable? If they look distracting, you might as well leave them out of your frame.

The secret is to make sure an object doesn’t cast a shadow that looks like an indistinguishable lump. The best shadows often feature beautiful patterns or solid contours.

Look for objects that have distinctive silhouettes. You can try just about anything from bicycles to trees, as long as they’re easy to identify. Humans also make nice shadows, especially when their arms and legs are spread apart.

5. Use Chiaroscuro to Help Your Shadow Photography

Learning how light in photography works and how it affects shadows can help you get creative with your images. That’s why it’s crucial to understand Chiaroscuro. This is a concept in painting and photography that describes the contrast between light and dark.

To understand the relationship between light and dark, it’s best to look at some examples. Some of the most famous paintings that employ chiaroscuro include Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Orrery.

When it comes to photography, some of Robert Maplethorpe’s portraits and Edward Weston’s still lifes come to mind. The best use of chiaroscuro is highlighting the details using light, and leaving the less critical elements in the dark. The contrast it produces also adds proportion to the subject and emphasizes textures.

To create dramatic photography, you’ll need to use hard, directional lighting. Choose a light source that has a focused beam that you can move at different angles. You should also shoot in a dimly lit location to create interesting shadows.

Shine your light source onto your subject from different angles until you see nice contrasts and rich textures. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. Just experiment with your light and see what type of results you get.

6. Use Rembrandt Lighting to Add Depth

Photo by Quinten de Graaf

Now that you know how chiaroscuro works, then you should try how you can use it for different portrait lighting patterns. There are a lot of various techniques out there that you can try. But for shadow photography, the best ones are Rembrandt lighting and split lighting.

First, let’s discuss Rembrandt lighting. As you’ve probably guessed, it got its name from the famous Dutch painter who was a chiaroscuro master. His specific lighting style for his painting looks so gorgeous that photographers decided to adapt it for their own use.

To create Rembrandt lighting, position your light source about 45 degrees in front of your subject. Then adjust it so that it’s above your model’s head and pointing down at them at about 45 degrees.

Due to the specific placement of the light, the other half of your subject’s face will be in the dark, except for a small triangle-shaped light on the cheek.

This sliver of light is the defining characteristic of the Rembrandt pattern, so you’ll need to make sure it appears in your photo. Otherwise, you can’t really call it Rembrandt lighting.

The next popular lighting pattern for shadow photography is split lighting. The light source illuminates only one side of the face, while the other half remains completely in the shadows. Simply place your key light directly beside your subject and you’ll get a shadowed face.

Of course, there are plenty of other lighting patterns you can try apart from these two. All you have to do is play with your lights and capture the exciting effects they create.

7. Try Black and White to Enhance Shadows

Color can sometimes be distracting, especially when it comes to shadow photography. To make it easier for your viewers to see the shadows, shoot in black and white. It tends to make the contrast between light and dark more prominent. Shades of white, grey, and black are easier for the eyes to interpret than a broad spectrum of colors.

That’s precisely the reason many of the images featured in this article are monochrome. The simplest way to produce monochromatic photos is by switching your camera’s shooting mode to black and white. Just remember that you’ll end up with JPEG files that you can only edit so much before digital artifacts appear.

If you want some flexibility, try shooting RAW+JPEG. Having a RAW as a backup gives you more options in case you’re not satisfied with your black-and-white JPEG. You can use RAW to edit your file without the risk of introducing artifacts.

Another option is to shoot in color and convert it into black and white in post-processing. All you have to do is open your file on your favorite editing software and desaturate the image. Or you can choose a black-and-white preset (especially if you’re using Adobe Lightroom) for better results.

8. Edit Your Shadow Photography

Despite using the right settings, your camera may not always achieve the perfect exposure. So we always recommend that you tweak your photos in post.

First, adjust your contrast to make your shadows look darker and more dramatic. You should also consider increasing your blacks and shadows to make the dark tones look even richer.

Just make sure not to go overboard or you’ll end up with a blown-out photo. Remember that when it comes to editing, moderation is crucial.


Now that you know how helpful shadows can be in influencing the mood of your images, try to incorporate them whenever possible.

Always observe how light and darkness interact with each other in your frame. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might just capture something magical.

Check out our Photography for Beginners course to master everything you need to know about light and shadows in photography!

The Magic of Light and Shadows

The Magic of Light and Shadows


Light and the absence of light – shadows – is essential in photography. Now I’m not just referring to the shadows that follow us around on a sunny day. I’m also referring to the dark portions in a scene. But it’s easy to overlook the shadows that light creates, we naturally take them for granted.

Read more: How Dramatic Natural Light Can Inspire Your Photography

Before we picked up our cameras, how many of us actually considered shadows as important? It is shadows that shape the light and that draw attention to the light. Shadows can help us create stronger compelling images. Therefore when we are creating photographs we should also think about the absence of light rather than just the light itself.

We should think about mastering the shadows just as we do mastering the light. There can be magic when light and shadows work together. If we perceive shadows as an important element, combined with the light, they can transform your images in 5 different ways.

  • Emphasize dimensions

    Light and shadows create the required differentiation between tones that is the basis of our perceptions. Those tones wrap around subjects, emphasizing the dimensions of those subjects and separating them from the scene around them. This creates depth in a 2 dimensional photograph.

  • Emphasize focus on subject

    Shadows can act as a blocker, separating the photograph into two distinct areas; the dark part and the brighter part. When a subject is placed in an illuminated portion of the scene, more emphasis is drawn to the subject, as if a spotlight has been cast upon them. This emphasis moves viewers eyes to your subject, creating a stronger image.

  • Contrast

    Light and dark are in opposition to one another, creating contrast. Contrast in an image draws viewers eyes to those areas of contrast, creating a stronger image.

  • Strengthen compositions

    Think about how light, and the absence of light, can contribute to the composition: leading lines, frames, negative space. All these compositional elements will lead the viewers eyes to what really matters and get rid of what doesn’t.

  • Add another graphic element

    Light can create an additional graphic element in a photograph, a literal shadow of a subject. Shadows of a subject can add significant substance to your image. An object and it’s shadow can strengthen each other. Sometimes shadows can be so interesting you may choose to focus on just the shadow and it then becomes the subject.

Ardelle Neubert - Guest Post

Ardelle Neubert is a lifestyle and fine art photographer.She lives in Calgary, AB, Canada with her husband and their two boys.She carries her camera everywhere, capturing the real life moments of love, laughter, daily activities and adventures in her life. Ardelle is an international award winning photographer who’s work has been featured in a variety of publications. Website | Instagram

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Light and shadow in photography

The main instrument of a photographer is not a camera, but light. It is he who draws landscapes, portraits, still lifes on film or a matrix. With the help of light, three photographic problems are solved: technical, pictorial and compositional. The technical problem - obtaining an image - is solved thanks to the invention of the camera: a strictly measured amount of light determined by the spectral composition of light is directed through the lens to the right place in the frame, where dark or light areas appear - light and shadows. To solve a visual problem, it is not enough just to flood the space that has fallen into the viewfinder field with light. With the help of light on the plane of the picture, you can depict, that is, draw, the three-dimensional world around us.

Light allows you to convey the roundness of an apple and the tenderness of a child's skin, the graphic quality of a wrought iron lattice and the sponginess of a granite pavement, the beauty of a crystal glass and the shine of the nickel-plated surface of a table knife, the gentle colors of a foggy morning and the flashy contrasts of a city at night. The compositional problem can be solved with the help of shadows generated by light. Sometimes the shadow is simple and definite. She is the subject of the picture and the essence of the picture in itself. Sometimes the shadow forms unusually ornate lines, which, when combined with the background, can evoke complex associations in the viewer, greatly enhancing the emotional impact of the photograph. You can also use the shadow as a compositional element of the picture, for example, to unite its disparate parts into a single whole and give it a compositional completeness. Light can be directed at the subject from everywhere: top and bottom, right and left, front and back. At the same time, a shadow pattern inherent only to this direction of light is created each time, affecting the perception of the photograph by the viewer.

Directions of light
Light differs depending on its direction to the subject:
- back (or direct) - directed to the subject from behind the back of the photographer.
- top - directed at the subject from above.
- lower - directed at the subject from below.
- upper side - aimed at the subject at an angle to the right or left of the camera.
- side - aimed at the subject strictly from the side.
- posterolateral - aimed at the subject at an angle from behind and to the right or left of the camera.
- back - directed towards the camera lens.

Types of light
It is very common to use several light sources at once to create a picture, both outdoors and indoors. In this case, each of them has its own purpose and name:
- drawing - the main type of light (all others play a supporting role). It is he who forms the shadows that determine the black and white solution of the picture. The key light is usually created by a single light source and can be directed at the subject from anywhere. - fill - with its help highlight the shadows, giving them lightness and transparency. Without fill light, shadows can become completely black. Sometimes this is appropriate, but more often at least some details should be read in the shadows. - backlight - directed at the object from behind and supports the key light, creating additional glare in the areas illuminated by it. In cases where the brightness of the object and the brightness of the background are the same, backlight helps to tear the object from the background. - contour (or backlight) - a kind of backlight. It is formed by a source installed exactly behind the head of the model and directed at the camera lens. Such light draws a bright overexposed outline around the subject, devoid of detail.
- background - used to illuminate the background, to create a black and white pattern on it that supports the key light.

Light qualities
soft (or diffused) - does not form harsh shadows. This is the light of a cloudy day or the sun covered by an oncoming cloud, the light reflected from a white wall or a photo umbrella (translucent, working for light, or with a reflective inner surface, working for reflection), the light of softboxes (special lighting devices that give soft light).
hard (or directional) - forms sharply defined, deep shadows. This is the light of the sun or lighting devices with a small size of a luminous body: incandescent lamps, street lamps, spots (special sources of directional hard light that give a very narrow beam of rays).

Artificial light
There is only one source of light outside - the sun, and the photographer cannot control it, unlike in the studio, where you can do whatever you want with the light. When I work in the studio, I try to light the frame in such a way as to replicate the imaginary natural light. For example, I imitate the light of the sun, the stripes of shadows from the blinds or the light from the window. With this approach to working with light, it is possible to shoot “true” photographs, viewing which the viewer experiences the joy of recognition. All types of lighting devices can be used to obtain key light, however, it is more convenient to shoot people with pulsed sources, because shooting moving objects requires fast shutter speeds. Flashes give out a powerful impulse in hundredths of a second, this makes it possible to avoid shaking. Still lifes, on the other hand, are best illuminated with halogen bulbs. Constantly burning light makes it possible to carefully, slowly, build a composition, and the exposure time in this case cannot affect the result of the shooting.

Soft light does not produce sharp, deep shadows. Such light can be obtained when the luminous body of the light source has a radiating area so large that it, as it were, covers the object both on the right and on the left. The same softbox or umbrella can work very softly when moved close to the subject, and very hard when moved a long distance from it. To get soft light, it is not at all necessary to use expensive softboxes. Sometimes you can get very soft light by pointing your flash at a ceiling or a white wall. I often use styrofoam sheets for this, which scatter light well without changing its color temperature. Folding lightdisks (light reflectors stretched on a steel spring) are very convenient. They also serve as an excellent source of soft, diffused light both in the studio and outdoors. The light of any window of a city apartment also works softly, if you do not move further than one meter from it).

A hard, directional light source can be any light source with a small luminous body: an incandescent bulb, a candle, a flashlight, a flash, a halogen photo lamp. The farther from the subject I put the light source, the harder it works. But in practical studio shooting it is difficult to use open light sources. Their rays, in addition to useful light, emit a lot of scattered light, which is reflected from the walls of the studio or from other objects, forming parasitic shadows or highlighting those that the photographer would like to see very deep. Therefore, it is more convenient to use professional equipment equipped with light-limiting shutters, honeycomb filters or tubes. These devices allow you to direct hard light only where it should be in accordance with the compositional design. There are also special sources of directional hard light that give a very narrow beam of rays - spots.

Street lighting
Not always the light and shade solution of the frame, dictated by the prevailing conditions, successfully solves the visual problem. Suppose I saw the object I liked on a gray cloudy day, when even, almost shadowless lighting does not allow me to convey in the photograph either the terrain, or the texture of the material that decorates the walls of houses, or the roundness of the columns, or the colors of mosaic decorations. We will have to come back here again, but when, at what time of the day? The sun, describing an arc in the sky, constantly changes the lighting conditions. In the early morning, light spreads along the surface of the earth, overcoming the thickness of the dusty atmosphere. At the same time, it dissipates and colors the air in warm red and yellow tones. At ten o'clock in the morning, when the sun rises about thirty degrees above the horizon, shadows appear, directed diagonally downwards. From noon to two o'clock in the afternoon the sun is at its zenith, at this time the light and shade pattern is perhaps the most unfortunate: vertical objects do not form long shadows. There is really an exception to this rule - the walls of houses expose their sides to the sun so that any eaves, any crumb of cement protruding above a flat surface forms deep, black shadows. If you use it wisely, you can get very impressive photos. Then the sun goes down, repeating the whole process of changing the light and shade pattern, only the direction of the shadows on the object is reversed.

We cannot control the light of the sun. We have to put up with this, but this does not mean at all that shooting on location is a simple fixation of the moment. You need to start by choosing the time of shooting. It depends on it: at what height the sun will be, at what angle the shadows will fall, whether the morning haze will soften and blur background objects. Even within one day it is impossible to take two identical pictures. I'm not talking about the influence of weather on lighting conditions. The light of an open, direct sun is harsh and uncompromising, but the light of the same sun will be noticeably scattered by the mere presence of clouds in the sky - they serve as good reflectors. A cloud covering the sun can make this light soft, and a large thundercloud can make it almost shadowless. The light of an overcast day and the light of the sun due to the horizon are amorphous and do not form chiaroscuro. Light depends not only on the time of day, but also on the season, on whether it rains or snows. Truly, there is no bad weather - there are bad photographers. The main tool for influencing street lighting is the legs. Do not be surprised, they allow you to choose the right direction for shooting. The light, as in the studio, can be rear, posterolateral, side, backlight, but if I move the lamps in the studio, then such liberties do not work with the luminary. You have to move in space yourself, changing the direction of light in the frame.

If the sun is behind the photographer, expect a flat picture. In most cases, this is bad - the volumes of objects are not detected. But sometimes you can very effectively use your own shadow or the shadows of nearby people. The backlight of the sun is different from the studio. The highlights in this case also occupy a smaller part of the image area, creating an overall dark tone. However, on the street, light scattering and reflection of the sun's rays are very noticeable. Air haze or fog stand out effectively against darker backgrounds, tonally emphasizing the depth of space, and light scattering allows you to get the necessary study of shaded details. The shadows formed by the counter are very beautiful. Contours and silhouettes help create concise and catchy shots. Shiny surfaces of water, polished metal, glass, various polymer films, stone finishing of architectural structures, sea pebbles, clouds at sunset, etc. are good in backlight. If you turn sideways to the sun, the nature of the lighting will change. The shadows will work properly for the photographer, but the picture will become much brighter, because there will be much more planes illuminated by the sun than with backlighting. The colors will become saturated. Finding a harmonious combination of lights and shadows in such lighting is quite difficult. Light and shadow enter into an age-old dispute - who is more important for art.

Light in composition
Composite "scales" help me balance light and shadow. They are always with me and, looking at the photos, I mentally weigh their contents. It is clear that dark spots are heavier than light ones, and the red object outweighs the green one. I like it when objects in a photograph obey the laws of gravity, when harmony and balance reign within each picture. When building a shot, I try not to place all the objects in one half of the frame, otherwise the picture will fall apart - if the top of the photo is very dark and the bottom is light, the viewer will instinctively want to turn it upside down. One has only to turn on the internal “scales” and analyze the lights and shadows scattered over the picture, as it turns out that many require the amputation of spaces free from semantic load. The pictures don't get worse though. However, cropping, as a rule, leads to a decrease in the used area of ​​the negative or matrix, and thereby reduces its quality. When the image is enlarged, the sharpness decreases, the graininess grows. Therefore, it is better to balance the frame in the process of shooting.

When I learned to shoot, I mentally imagined that the plane of the picture was balanced at the tip of the needle. It is enough to put a weight on any point of this imaginary structure, as a counterweight will have to be used to maintain balance. Such a counterweight can be not only an object, but also a shadow from it. At the stage of apprenticeship, it makes sense to shoot still lifes - dead nature allows you to slowly think through all the elements of the composition. When shooting a still life, you should first of all find a place for the main subject, only after that you can fill the free space of the picture with something else. The simplest solution may seem to be the central location of the main object or a symmetrical composition. However, symmetry kills movement in the frame, nature does not like symmetry. A deliberate violation of the symmetrical compositional balance can give an image additional meaning, exciting emotionality or mystery. Such a picture should cause unconscious anxiety in the viewer, thereby detaining his attention.

It is impossible to cut a single millimeter from a good photograph without harming it. Everything in it should be interconnected, as in a good watch mechanism - you take out any detail, and the watch becomes a trinket. However, the analysis of the black and white pattern of photographs is not always simple. Many pictures live perfectly without pronounced main shadows or main light accents. A beautiful photograph may well turn out to be woven from a multitude of lights and shadows of equal area and brightness. In this case, the photographer has no choice but to arrange this mosaic, put it in order, using all the richness of the compositional techniques available to him: upper or lower angles, linear or tonal perspective, golden section points, depth of field, highlighting something important with using color or vice versa discoloration. But the main thing is still the ability to see the lights and shadows around you and learn how to manage them.

Light and shadow in photography. Secrets of artistic composition using light and shadow

That “photography” in Greek means “light painting”, for sure, every professional knows. The play of light and shadow in photographs and its skillful use is what distinguishes high-quality photographs from amateur ones. The ability to work with studio lighting equipment, use street lighting is very important in photography.

For beginners, the first step to managing light in a frame is to learn the types of lighting. Let's start with the simplest ones.

By type of source:

Ø Natural (sun, moon).

Ø Artificial (lantern, candle, chandelier, flash, etc.)

By brightness:

Ø Scattered - like outside on a cloudy day. Photographing shadows with such lighting is almost impossible. Therefore, the images often lose volume and depth.

Ø Directional - these are rays that create clear and sharp chiaroscuro. For example, lighting from a window or artificial devices. And this type can be divided into three subspecies:

Frontal (behind the back of the photographer),

backlight (the light source is behind the object being shot),

lateral (source - to the right or left of the object).

By type of imaging

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