SHADOW Photography

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Photography is known as the art of capturing light. But did you know that the counterpart of light, the shadow, also plays an important role in the creation of an image?

I have done a Shutterbug column on Light Photography few months back. I was pondering over what next to come up with in this issue, and right then it stuck me that photographers do tend to pay a lot of attention to light photography…and at the same time ignore totally the existence of shadow photography.This is quite natural to think of light as one of the most important aspects of photography. On the other hand, shadows may seem to be less important – simply a lack of light. This would be a major mistake — for light is nothing without shadows.Shadow plays an important part in photography. Without it, photos would look flat, lacking in dimension and texture. But have you ever thought about making shadow the main subject of a photograph? Photographers are often urged to learn to read the light. However, reading the light is only half the challenge — one must also learn to read the shadows.


Photography is known as the art of capturing light. But did you know that the counterpart of light, the shadow, also plays an important role in the creation of an image?We all know what a shadow is, it’s that stalker that keeps following us on bright sunny days or well-lit places at night! Shadow is more than that though, it is also the darkest area of a scene as opposed to the highlights which illuminate the brightest.Shadows are not simply a dark mass that borders the light. Rather, shadows are an entity as alive as the light. It is the shadows that shape the light, draw attention to the light, and integrate with the light to produce striking photographic opportunities.If we are to reach our full potential as photographers, we must think as much in terms of mastering the shadows as we do of mastering the light. Let me point out something at this stage; shadow photography is more about creativity than technicality. So, this article mainly deals with the creative ideas and tips, rather than my typical tips about settings and usage of cameras and lenses.My article details five uses of shadows in creating dynamic photos:

1. Contrast and Drama

One of the most powerful uses of shadows is for the creation of contrast to produce a dramatic effect. People’s attention is automatically drawn to areas of high tonal contrast. However, tonal contrast cannot occur without shadows. Thus, it is the interplay of light and shadows that creates the attention grabbing contrast. An example of this use of shadows would be a dramatic sunset where the sun punches through gaps in the clouds creating areas of light which are surrounded by dark areas where the cloud cover is heavy.

2. Focus

Shadows can be effectively used to focus a viewer’s attention. The shadows help focus the viewer’s attention by removing detail from the less important parts of the image. An example of this would be a dramatic portrait that uses light to illuminate the eyes of the subject but allows the rest of the face to fall into deep shadow. The shadow would help to hide the detail of the face. Thus, the viewer’s attention would be drawn to the eyes of the subject.

3. Directing the Attention

Shadows can be used to direct the viewer’s attention. This is because shadows often have a shape. When a shaped shadow points to the centre of interest in a photo, the shadow will direct the viewer’s attention to the centre of interest. Conversely, the shadows can surround an area of light that points to the centre of interest. In either case, the photo is strengthened as the centre of interest is reinforced by the use of shadow.

4. Revealing Form

One of the most common uses of shadows is for revealing form. This often involves the sun, at a low angle to the horizon, casting long shadows across the terrain. Any irregularities in the shape of the subject or terrain will be magnified. An example of this use of shadow would be a low sun casting long shadows across sand dunes just before sunset.

5. Revealing Texture

Similar to revealing form, shadows can be used to reveal texture. Again, this often involves the sun, at a low angle to the horizon, casting shadows across the subject or terrain. The main difference is that the photographer moves in close to emphasize the texture of an object rather that the form. An example of using shadows to reveal texture would be using setting sun to emphasize the ripples in the sand of a beach.


There are lots of different ways you can use shadow as the main element of a creative photo. In this article we’ll look at some ideas and tips on photographing shadows, and hopefully inspire you to try some of these ideas yourself.

1. Scary shadows

A photo with a large menacing shadow encroaching on a terrified (or sometimes oblivious) person can be done quite easily, but makes for a great photo. You will need a subject that is not a shadow (typically a person) for the shadow to play off against. This also gives a sense of scale to the shadow. You also need a relatively plain, flat wall that the shadow can be cast onto. The larger the wall, the larger you’ll be able to make your scary shadow.You also want a light that you can position as needed. This allows you to control the direction of the shadows. An off-camera flash is ideal, but any well positioned light will work.The light should be positioned some distance from the subject. To create the large scary shadow, you can use a toy, a shape cut from cardboard, another person, or anything else you can think of. The closer to the light source you position your shadow object, the larger the shadow will appear.Bear in mind that the closer to the light source / further away from the background the shadow object is, the softer the edge of the shadow will be. For shadows with a sharp, well defined edge, you will need a relatively large object to cast the shadow, so that it can be positioned further away from the light / closer to the background.

2. Colored shadows

Typically shadows have no color, and are just gray or black. But if you use a colored translucent material to cast a shadow, you then get colored shadows. For this to work you do need a fairly translucent colored subject. Some balloons, for example, are quite thick and so will just cast a grey or very faintly colored shadow.Suitable subjects for this type of photo are colorful umbrellas, glass, bottles, or even jelly sweets. If you have a clear glass, you always create a colorful shadow by filling it with colored water. Typically for this type of photo you combine a standard shadow with the colored shadow. The colored area then contrasts against the gray / black of the rest of the shadow. This kind of photo works best on a plain, neutral colored background. If the background is colorful it will make the colors in the colored shadow more difficult to see.

3. The shadow with the mind of its own

The idea for this style of photo is that you have a subject with a shadow, but the shadow is a different shape / doing a different pose to the subject. This type of photo is probably easiest achieved using image editing software, however it can be achieved in-camera with a bit of effort. For an in-camera effect, you want your light positioned some way away from the subject, and off to one side.Position your camera, subject, and light so that when you photograph the subject its shadow does not appear in the image. Now introduce your shadow object, which you want positioned outside of the image frame, but close enough so that its shadow will be cast within the image frame. This is why you need the lighting at quite an acute angle to the subject.Depending on your subject, you may be able to light your subject separately from the shadow object. For example, having an additional fill light pointing down at the subject. But be careful if doing this, as if the subject looks like they are lit from a different direction than that which the shadow is falling in, then the trick is revealed. The photo editing technique is likely to be much easier. You need your camera secured on a tripod so it won’t move at all. Then take two photos – one with your subject, and another without the subject, but with the shadow you want. All camera settings and lighting should remain exactly the same for both shots. Then take the two images into your editing software and add one image on top of the other as a layer. Then use a layer mask to carefully paint in the shadow / subject layer.

4. The shadow that’s alive

This shot is quite easy to achieve, and just requires a little imagination. The idea is that you photograph a shadow that looks to be interacting with its surroundings. For this to work you need a flat surface for your shadow to fall on, and something for the shadow to interact with. An example might be a shadow that appears it is about to pick something up from a wall mounted shelf. Or a shadow that appears to be kicking a ball on the ground.By keeping your light source quite far away you should be able to cast a shadow that does not appear overly large. The sun, being a long distance away, makes for a good light source for this type of photo.

5. Long shadows from above

This effect can create quite striking photos, but can be quite difficult to achieve with natural light. Using a low light source, such as the sun near sunset or sunrise creates long shadows. By then photographing these shadows from above, if the light is at the correct angle, the shadow(s) will take on the same shape as the subject(s) when viewed normally. At the same time the subjects can take on a shape which is not identifiable (unless it’s something that you’re used to looking down on). When using natural light as your light source the problem is that you need to get up high to be able to shoot down. But any structure that you use to get up high will cast a shadow itself. So you need to ensure that your subjects are on the side of the structure that is not in shadow.If you are lucky enough to take a hot air balloon ride around sunrise / sunset, that is the perfect setup for this type of photography. You can get up high and the balloon has only a small shadow footprint, which won’t affect shooting straight down at all anyway.If you are using artificial lighting, then you don’t need to worry about this so much. You can just position your lighting so that it will create long shadows of the subjects without creating a shadow of whatever structure you’re using to get up above the subject.

7. Distorted Shadows

The techniques discussed so far involve using a flat surface to project the shadow on. Using a 3D surface to cast a shadow on can also give very interesting images. The shadow distorts and bends as it goes over the uneven surface, creating a very different feel to a standard shadow photo.This type of photo is particularly suited to more abstract compositions, using the distorted shadow as part of a pattern, or perhaps to break up a pattern. As with the other ideas, the position of the light in relation to the subject casting the shadow will have a big effect on how the image appears.So, here are few ways to make shadows the main subject (or at least a large part) of your photos. This type of photography can be something fun to play with and give you some great shots. Why not give some of the ideas here a try, and see what you can create!!

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