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5 Tips for Using Shadows to Create Dramatic Images

Fear not the shadows!

Too often I have seen new photographers who want to try and get rid of all shadows in their photos. Portraits with no shadows, landscape with even lighting, or worse yet, bracketed shots to create an HDR image, devoid of all shadows and blacks at all.

Two men smoke cigars in Cuba with shadows processed out
Example of shadows removed in processing.
a second photo of the cigar smoking men with shadows left in for creative depth
See how much more depth and drama this version has?

So let me say this right here:

Shadows are your best friend as a photographer

It's been said (“they” say) that one cannot know happiness, without also knowing great sadness; or understand success, without first having failed. This is also true in photography, in terms of opposites – you cannot have light, without also having darkness or shadows. So an image with no shadows (or deep dark blacks) is flat and lifeless, it feels two dimensional.

Choosing how to use those shadows is key, and knowing when the light has too much contrast is also important. But, using shadows will help you create more dramatic images. Here are a few tips for you to incorporate more shadows into your photography.

Shoot the shadow as the subject
Objects with distinct shapes make great shadows, and can even be the subject of your image; think about things like bicycles, trees, people, a fence, a horse or camel, etc. Create an image of the object with its shadow, or just show only the shadow, and cut off the real object. Obviously you need a bright sunny day, and if you want long shadows, shoot later in the day towards dusk, or first thing in the morning after sunrise – both times when the sun is low in the sky.

Here are some example images using the shadow as the subject, or at the very least it is an important part of the image:

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Self portrait late in the day over the sand dunes in Death Valley, CA.
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High contrast shadows in NYC.

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If you live on or near the prairie somewhere you'll know the shape of these shadows above (grain elevators). The sun peeked out from behind the clouds to produce this shadow for about five minutes, and I felt it was appropriate they fell over the fields where the very grain had grown.

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A simple shadow of a street light creates a dramatic image full of color and shape.
Create a silhouette
Many people think of silhouettes as shadows, and while technically there are not – a silhouette is about dark versus light, and for the purpose of this article it fits.

To create a silhouette you basically just need a subject that is backlit (light coming from behind it) and a light toned background. Sunset is a great way to make a silhouette, or in front of a window.

For more tips on creating a silhouette, read: Silhouette Photography Tips – 3 Keys to Great Photos. That articles is mostly about doing a portrait, but the technique applies to any subject. However, just like shooting a shadow, make sure to pick a subject with a distinct, recognizable, shape or outline, because otherwise it will just look like a blob of nothing.

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Silhouette of my husband and the rocks on the beach in Oregon.
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Silhouette on the prairie.
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A cross, backlit in a cemetery.
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You can silhouette just about anything, as with this bridge and bird (it actually the same bird multiplied in Photoshop) against the setting sun.
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This image uses a near silhouette and long shadows to add drama.
Make a moody portrait
If you've read this: Quality of Light – What is it? How do you use it? you'll understand that there is no such thing as good or bad light, it all depends on the intention you have for your image. Likewise, having more shadows in your portraits, or people photography, doesn't necessarily mean using hard light – the two or not mutually exclusive. You CAN have lots of contrast in a portrait with soft light.

Try this quick exercise:

  • Pick a window that doesn't have direct sunlight coming through it.
  • Get a friend to sit fairly close to the window, about a foot away.
  • Position yourself across from your friend so the light is hitting one side of their face only (their shoulder is facing the wall, as is yours). Have them turn to face you directly, and take a photo of them in this position.
  • Next have them move about two feet away from the window, and you do likewise (you move together).
  • Take another photo in this position.
  • Find something to use as a reflector (if you have a fold out one use the white side) such as a big piece of white cardboard, or even a white sheet.
  • Position the reflector about a foot away from your subject, on the side of their face farther away from the window. Get another friend to hold it for you, or find something to prop it up on. Take another shot.

Now download to your computer, and compare the three images side by side. What do you notice?

Notice the left image has almost no shadows and her facial features are not well defined. Her face seems flat and non-dimensional, compared to the image on the right with deep shadows, yet the light is still soft and flattering for her!

You should notice that the image you did closest to the window has the most contrast, and the shadow side of the face is the darkest of the three images. In the second one where you moved away from the window, the shadows are not quite as dark, there is less overall contrast. And in the final image, if you positioned your reflector close enough, you may see almost no shadows on their face at all (or at least they are much lighter).

So what can you learn from that? Well again, none of them are right or wrong, they are just different. Which has is the most dramatic? The one with the most contrast. Now use this knowledge when photographing people, if you want to add drama. Some subject examples where you might want to use this are: a teen with spiky hair shot in black and white, a business man who wants to appear more powerful, a grizzled old guy with a character face, an actor's headshot, you get the idea? Not to say that you can't make dramatic, contrasty portraits of women, but it's less common – it would be appropriate for someone like say Lady Gaga, an old time Hollywood style glamour photo (like George Hurrell did in the 1920-1940s), etc.

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Light from behind the camera is flat, and lacks texture and depth.
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Light from camera right adds drama and shape to the man's face.
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This image has a direction of light but little shadow. It's a nice portrait of this teen but it's not really dramatic.
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The harsher side lighting here creates a more dynamic portrait. Neither is wrong or better, just different.
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This was done using flash, but from the camera angle so it is flat.
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This portrait has the light coming from camera right (to the man's side) and one from behind him to highlight the side of his face. This is advanced lighting for portraits, but you can see the difference between this image, and the one above.
Use shadows in scenic images to add depth and shape
Landscape photography is not as easy as it first appears. How hard can it be right, you show up, snap a few photos, and get published in National Geographic Traveler right? Wrong!

To make good, or great, landscape photographs, getting the light perfect is key, which has to do with being there at the right time of day, and hoping conditions are perfect. Many of the very best landscape photographers trek into remote areas and camp overnight so they can shoot but sunset and sunrise – sometimes staying several days just to get one shot. They go the extra mile (literally and figuratively) to get the prize winning images that you see grace the pages of magazines.

As that may not be practical or possible for you, what you can do is pick the times you go to shoot your landscapes carefully. Like shooting shadows, working at the edge of daylight (after sunrise or before dusk – called the golden hours) you will get the quality and direction of light conducive to making great images.

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Taken at sunset, the light skimming over the Andes mountains in Peru.
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This photo was taken just after sunrise in Cappadocia Turkey. Notice how the light is coming from the right side of the image.

The other piece to consider is the direction of light. Putting the sun at your back will result in flat lighting, and a scene that lacks depth. It's like using your on-camera flash, not the best light most times. Positioning yourself so the sun is coming from one side (90 degrees) of your scene will create light and dark – the elusive shadows we're coveting here in this article! This will add shape to your landscape, trees will appear round, buildings will have defined sides, and the image will have more of a three dimensional feeling or depth. This is a good thing.

Side lighting and shadows will also enhance any texture in your scene, giving it more life. Read more about that here: How to Create Texture in your Photographs

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An overcast day with no shadows leaves this church looking drab and lifeless.
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Midday sun casts shadows on the church which enhance texture and shape. A more interesting camera angle and composition helps too!
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Side lighting shows the shape of the church tower in this image, without good direction of light and the shadows it would not have the same depth and dimension.
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Side lighting in Hawaii at sunset.
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The shadows and light really make this image of a subject that would otherwise be ordinary and boring.
Shoot some black and white
One thing I recommend if you are new to photography, is to learn to see light. Many people struggle with that concept, so to make it easier, set your camera to shoot in monochrome mode (black and white). In fact, we did a monthly challenge on this a while back. You're welcome to give it a go any time: Monthly Challenge – Shoot in Monochrome Learn to See Light, and while the prize has already been given away, you will still win on your own if you can learn from the exercise.

Black and white photography loves contrast, so work with it. Try shooting in this mode for a while, not just converting in processing later, but actually shooting in b/w so the preview you see on your camera is not distracting you with color. I LOVE b/w photography, it has emotion, it has soul. So when you are out shooting and the light is contrasty, work with it and shoot some black and white.

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This image, although good in color, makes an even more dramatic b/w image (below).

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This image is purely about tones, light and dark. There is nothing of interest here without shadows, but with them it is a graphic image of shapes.
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Another image that plays well in black and white.
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This stunning b/w portrait was done in one of my classrooms using only light from the window and a reflector. Read how here.
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Shadows on this image are on the side facing the camera, with light coming from two windows, outlining the subject.

Summary and action plan

Let me just reiterate this again here:

Fear not the shadows in your photography, for they are your friends!

You may have noticed there are five tips above, each of which will give you something to go practice. So if you have some free time after the holidays are all over, give them each a go.

Reading is great, but practice always makes perfect, and doing means you will get it ingrained into your very being. It will become second nature. So use your new found love of shadows, and go create some dramatic images – do share them in the comments below as well, I'd love to see them.


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