photo by Ranta Images via iStock
Photography is drawing with light, part of the overall lighting of a scene is shadow. Making use of shadows in photography can improve our imaging in general and is a great tool for certain types of photography.
In order to know how to use shadows in photography, it helps to know what is happening when we see shadows already there and how to create shadows in photography when the scene may not naturally have what we’re pre visualizing for our finished images.
What are Shadows in Photography?
photo by coldsnowstorm via iStock
Photographically speaking, exposures can be separated into highlights, midtones, and shadows. Many post-processing programs have tools to adjust these channels separately. If you are a fan of the Zone System, exposures are divided into 11 different zones (O-X or 0-10) with the zones darker than Zone V being shadowed.
Any time light is blocked or decreased in a scene, the result is a shadow. Darker tones are also called shadow as in “shadow detail.” So, basically, shadows in photography either refer to the lighting in the scene or the darker part of a recorded image.
How to Create Shadows in Photography
photo by RickLordPhotographyvia iStock
Rembrandt lighting is an outstanding photographing lighting technique that takes advantage of chiaroscuro or contrast control in order to create a strong contrast between light and dark. It is exemplified in the painted portraits by the artist Rembandt and in photographic portraits by various photographers such as Yusof Karsh, Edward Weston, and Richard Avedon among others.
In addition to light placement, light attenuation, and power levels, posing will also affect the contrast levels. You can create harsh shadows or softer shades by varying all of these factors. Low-key photography in general also relies on contrast, using key lights to fill light ratios of 3:1, 5:1, or even higher.
Why Use Shadows in Portrait Photography
photo by RetroAtelier via iStock
There are good reasons to use shadows in portrait photography. Creating, modifying, or eliminating shadows on a face can change, enhance, or reduce certain characteristics and attributes of the subject. Controlling shadows in photography can also change the mood and impact of the image, adding drama and interest.
In general, high-key portraits will have an airy mood, while low-key will lean more towards somber. Both methods can be romantic, depending on choices of posing and other variables.
Rembrandt lighting and other similar portrait lighting techniques will usually invoke a feeling of power, drama, intrigue, or importance. Even if you’re primarily shooting for some other effect, adding in the contrast of shadows for some of the images often results in outstanding images that grab a viewer’s attention.
Try Shadow Photography as a Subject
photo by momcilog via iStock
A fun and exciting portrait technique that we can play with is actually making the shadow the point of interest in the photograph. This can be accomplished with all of the same gear we’re likely already using. The trick for how to take shadow photography is to adjust your light placement, subject posing, focus, etc., until the shadow or shadow lines take precedent in the image.
Shooting with the intent of processing into black and white is helpful to emphasize this effect. Simple props, such as window blinds or a kitchen colander can be used to artificially create shadows.
photo by RetroAtelier via iStock
If you want to try out some shadow photography with a portrait subject, use a single light and don’t diffuse the light. A fresnel light or a panel light are easy to use for this idea. Put the item you’re using to make the shadows between the light and the subject.
Your shadow lines, or the transition from light to dark, can be adjusted by moving the item closer or further from the light source. Remember that the further away form the subject, the harder the light quality from a single bulb. Harder light makes more distinct, harsh shadows.
Shadow Detail and HDR
photo by Brad_Buchanan via iStock
A technique we don’t always think about when shooting portraits is HDR photography. Using HDR methods, we can create some very interesting portraits. A huge part of the HDR technique is deciding how much to process the images. You can decide if a more natural feel is going to work best or a more artsy approach.
A main thing to consider when shooting HDR portraits is that you’ll be capturing multiple exposures. So you will want to eliminate or at least reduce camera and subject motion. It can be done, shoot on a tripod and ask the subject to remain still, similar to capturing a long exposure portrait.
It Takes Two
photo by okeyphotos via iStock
It takes two methods to make good use of shadows in photography. The first method is your shooting procedure. Lighting, posing, focus, and exposure all play a part in creating an image.
The second method is your post-processing. Converting to black and white, merging for HDR, adjusting contrast levels up or down from the captured image are all processing techniques for shadow photography. Using a program with non-destructive editing will ease up your workflow so you can play around with various ideas.
photo by Slavica via iStock
Any or all of the methods for shadow photography might be something you want to try. One of the best things about digital photography is the ability to shoot a lot and process immediately without waiting on the film to come back.
The digital image techniques we add to our general photographic skills open up all sorts of possibilities. Using shadows in photography can involve all of our skills, from posing to lighting to processing. So, try it out and see which method or technique works for you.