Seeing Shadows

Shadows can add intrigue, dimension, and drama to a photo

Shadows can add intrigue, dimension, and drama to a photo. Their strength is dependent on the intensity and direction of light. The stronger and more pinpoint the light, the more pronounced the shadow. Soft light found on overcast days provides almost shadowless conditions. While this type of light has its advantages, if the goal is to make a dynamic and dramatically lit photo with strong shapes, forms, and textures, seek out hard light to produce contrast and dimension to your images.

Use a Shadow to Direct The Viewer's Attention: Shadows can be incorporated into your compositions to direct the viewer to a given area in the photo. The stronger the shape and contrast of the shadow, or the stronger the difference between the lit and shadowed portion of the subject, the more the lit section becomes the focal point. Additionally, the object that creates the shadow can be used to bring the viewer to the shadow which may be the secondary or support element in the photo. If this is the case, the shadow should work hand in hand with the main subject.

The Shadow Can Be The Subject: To add a bit of mystery to your photographs, eliminate most or all parts of the item that creates the shadow and focus on the shadow itself. It's often not necessary to include the original object if the shadow it forms is clearly defined. In the accompanying photo of the bifocal glasses, you don't need to see the entire frame to know they were there to create the shadow. The intrigue and mystery is found in the shadow's distortion. Subjects with strong visual recognition make great subjects. As an example, a branch of a tree with sharply defined leaves creates a much nicer shadow than would just the trunk rendered as a dark blob against the grass.

Reveal Form, Shape, or Contrast: Use shadows to reveal form and shape. This is done using contrast of lights next to darks. Think about ripples in dunes photographed at sunrise or sunset. The reason they are pronounced is due to the low angle of light. The lower the angle of light, the longer the shadow. This occurs early and late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon.

Patterns: Patterns and shadows often go hand in hand. One that instantly comes to mind is that from which a shadow pattern is created by a candle housed inside a glass textured tube. Think about when you're at a nice restaurant lit by candle light and there's an intriguing pattern cast across the tablecloth. Another instance that comes to mind are shadows created by the sun radiating through a set of blinds. Depending on how the blinds are adjusted, the shadows can be more or less emphasized. Place a plant in the path of the light to add a focal point to the shadow. Older windows with multiple small panes provide great potential for shadow pics.

Shadows can be found in many places and in many shapes and sizes. The more you begin to notice them, the more you'll find yourself pointing your lens at them. I've often said that photography is all about the light. With this in mind, learn how to not only read the light, learn how to read the shadows.

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