Photographing shadows is often overlooked as a creative subject for our photography, and we can understand why. Any photographer, or photographic professional, will tell you that photography is all about light. That’s true. But we see beauty in that little ugly duckling called shadows.
We’ve been involved in photography for almost half a century, and one thing has always amazed us; many folks don’t truly understand what a shadow is when viewed in a photograph. We’re not saying that people don’t know what a shadow is “period”. There probably isn’t a single one of us who didn’t stand on a playground when we were children and marvel at the late afternoon sun casting our long shadow across the pavement.
But as it relates to the photographic image, a lot of folks seem confused about what a shadow really is.
Let’s Point Out What a Shadow Isn’t
This is not a shadow. This is a silhouette.
So What is the Difference?
- the dark shape and outline of someone or something visible against a lighter background, esp. in dim light
- a dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface.
We’re sure that many old pros from the photography world are scoffing at us right now. They’re probably thinking that everyone knows the difference between a shadow and a silhouette. But, believe it or not, many beginners in photography don’t know the difference.
So, let’s talk about the difference.
Silhouettes have a fixed shape that mimics the object blocking the light. Shadows are not fixed in shape. A shadow will change in shape, definition, and color based on the positioning, quality, and color of the light creating it. It will also change characteristics based on the object that it falls upon. This opens up room for a lot of creativity.
The Characteristics of Shadows
Every beginning photographer is taught about the qualities of light: soft light, hard light, broad light, spot light, etc. Shadows also exhibit similar characteristics.
A shadow can be deep in tone and have a hard defined edge.
Harsh direct light creates deep shadows with hard defined edges.
A shadow can also be broad, soft, and with a feathered almost imperceptible edge.
Not only does the quality of light affect shadows, the distance of the light source to the object casting the shadow will change it’s characteristics, as well as the distance of the object casting the shadow to the object the shadow falls upon. As you can see, working with shadows opens up an almost infinite window of opportunity.
A shadow can be twisted and manipulated by changing the shape of the object casting the shadow. A shadow can be almost translucent. A shadow can be colored! You can do a lot of cool things with a shadow.
The Common Use of Shadows
When photographers, (or all artists for that matter), think of modeling a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional medium, they think of highlights and shadows. It’s these two elements, which are created by light, that help us to see in three dimensions.
This photograph is a perfect example of how highlights and shadows emphasize three dimensions. Picture this in your mind, if the photograph had been taken at noon, with the sun directly overhead, the sand dune would lose all of it’s three dimensional qualities.
What if We Use Shadows in an Uncommon Way?
How do we do that? We make the shadows- the subject of our photograph!
This is a perfect example of the shadow becoming the subject. Sure, this is a picture of a cat, but it’s the distorted shadow of the cat that brings interest to what could have been an ordinary photograph!
This is a somewhat abstract, but very interesting, use of a shadow as subject matter.
Shadows Will Be Our Subject- Now What?
Let’s look at some ways that you can put shadows to work in expressing yourself.
This photographer took the idea of using shadows, as subjects, to a whole new level. He actually created his shadows by making the objects that were going to cast the shadows. What a creative statement! Does that spark some ideas?
Photography is about expressing yourself in an artistic medium. Applying that to shadows could mean hunting down interesting shadows that already exist. It could mean creating shadows that weren’t there. It could even mean you manipulating existing shadows to satisfy your creative vision!
Did you know that Shadows can be Colored?
When light is directed at a translucent object some light is blocked and some of the color spectrum passes through; this creates colored multi-tone shadows. An example of this would be a stained glass window. Here’s a cool idea. Collect different types of colored glass and use them to create colored shadows in a scene that you select. Here’s another cool point. If you create shadows of several different colors and intersect them, a new color will be formed where they overlap.
Colored shadows are created by passing light through colored translucent objects, or by putting colored gels on the light sources that create the shadows. Just remember, if any white (full spectrum) light hits your colored shadow it will erase the color.
Shadows can Accentuate Details
Perhaps, you have a subject that you’re looking for a way to direct the viewer’s eye to a certain detail. Why not create a shadow?
There is no mistaking that the photographer wanted to direct the viewer to the young woman’s beautiful eyes.
This photographer used some carefully placed shadows to direct the eye, AND, create a mood.
Shadows can Convey Emotion
This shadow photograph screams “Joy!” We don’t even have to see the children’s faces.
The dense black shadows, and their placement around the eyes, emphasizes the feeling of sadness, or depression.
Shadows and the Abstract
The ability to stretch and distort shadows lends itself to interesting and beautiful abstract images.
This curved shadow between two walls is a beautiful abstract form.
A New Perspective
Even when there are recognizable objects within a photograph, the use of strong shadows can provide a creative element that strengthens the composition.
The repeated form of the bicycle- strengthens- what would have been a rather ordinary photograph.
We hope that you feel inspired to seek out shadows, create shadows, alter shadows, and highlight them in your future photographs!
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