Learn to Love Shadows

(© Ian Plant) “Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.”—Junichiro Tanizaki.

Although it is often said that nature photographers “chase the light,” what we really should be doing is chasing contrast between light and shadow. It is at the edge of light where the true magic happens.

Shadows can be particularly effective at creating the appearance of depth in photographs. When we take a photograph, we transform our dynamic three dimensional reality into something considerably flatter, rendering it as a two dimensional representation. While our 3D binocular vision may correctly perceive separation between objects at varying distances in the real world, in a two-dimensional photo many of those objects can seem to occupy the same physical space, appearing to merge together. The result can often be a static composition that lacks the appearance of depth.

While careful positioning may help one open up space between merging elements, selecting a camera position merely to optimize spacing between elements may not always be possible or desirable, and may detract from the overall composition. Another way to avoid merger is to use shadows to create apparent separation between elements. Light and shadows help visually define objects and create compositional shapes, and can provide important perspective cues that help create depth in a photograph. Shadows, when used properly, can be effective at leading the viewer’s eye deep into a photograph, and can help bring an otherwise static scene to life.

Artists have long known that the contrast between light and dark can be used to create expressive compositions. Renaissance painters called this chiaroscuro (a combination of two Italian words meaning light—chiaro—and dark—oscuro) to describe how the contrast between light and dark can create the illusion of depth, mass, and volume in two-dimensional artwork.

Of course, whereas painters can create light and dark to suit their purposes with the stroke of a brush, nature photographers are at the mercy of real world light, and must make use of existing shadows cast by objects illuminated with natural light. The size, intensity, and angle of shadows are determined by time of day and weather. Often, rapidly changing lighting conditions may force the photographer to quickly reposition in order to adapt to changes in shadow structure.

Photographers can use shadows for a variety of compositional purposes:

Shadows can help create separation between elements. Without shadows, many nature scenes will appear indistinct and uniform. Think of a sand dune: in full overhead sunlight, when fewer shadows are cast, the dune will appear uniform, whereas when the light is low and angled, features such as ripples and dune crests are strongly revealed. Accordingly, shadows can transform a uniform patch of sand into a series of separate and repeating shapes.

Shadows can be used to extend the main subject. Sometimes a prominent shadow can be used as a compositional element, extending the main subject into other areas of the photograph, or creating a visual relationship between the subject and its shadow.

Shadows can be effective at framing an area of emphasis. The use of shadows can help encourage the eye to travel to important areas of the photograph that are in the light.

Shadows can be used to simplify an otherwise messy composition. Shadows can actually help create order and compositional structure in an otherwise chaotic scene. This is especially useful when an important element is in the light and less important and distracting elements fall in shadow. Of course, too many shadows can also complicate a composition, so exercise caution!

Shadows can be the subject of a composition itself. Shadows create compositional shapes and forms, and can be used as important elements of the overall design of a photograph. Images can be effectively organized into areas of shadow and light, and patterns can emerge from their juxtaposition. Shadow shapes that are sufficiently interesting can be used as the primary subject of a photograph.

Of course, not all scenes work well with mixed lighting and shadows, such as many forest or waterfall scenes where harsh light and heavy shadows can create too much compositional disorder. For many landscape scenes, however, shadows can greatly enhance a composition. So the next time you are out chasing the light, take some time to pay attention to the shadows as well—they may mean the difference between a good photograph and a great one.

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