Only the Shadow Knows...


As photographers, we often say, “It’s all about the light,” and of course, we understand what that means. A photograph isn’t possible without light. What make a great photograph is great light, and the quality of the light...or is it? Is it really about great shadow?

Painting the Shadows

Now take an artist—a painter to be precise. Let's make a situational example out of this: If you were just starting out painting and were asked to paint a still life (like a bowl of apples), you would draw the round shapes of the apples, the lines of the stems and the ellipse of the bowl. Then you would proceed to color in the apples with red and maybe a little green on top. The stems would be brown, and let’s give a cheery yellow to the bowl.

Ok, we’re done. How does it look? Well it looks okay, but it really doesn’t look very realistic, in fact it looks very flat. Not life like at all.

So what is that bowl of apples missing? Well, if we were a master painter we would know that it is missing light and shadow. Adding shading into the image that shows light on the object, and its corresponding shadow—that will bring life to the flat image.

The master painter would add a little yellow and white paint on the apple to show the specular light, and then darker shades of red and brown around the apple, to show the shadows as the light attempts to wrap around the form. Then some black and gray paint would be added on the table area to project the shadow of the bowl and fruit onto the table surface.

This still life, done by the artist Willem Claesz, demonstrates just such use of light and shadow.

Image: Willem Claesz. Heda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Notice how we know that there is texture to the tablecloth because of the effect of shadow in the folds and wrinkles in the cloth, and we know that the plate is hanging over the edge of the table because of the shadows.

Application to Photography

Ok, so now you ask, just how does this apply to photography? Without shadow in photography—and the proper use of it—our images have no life, drama, texture, or realism. They are as flat as that beginner painter’s bowl of fruit.

So when we look to create great images, we look for the shadow. If we are shooting still lifes, we would look for the same great light and shadow that an artist draws in. This may mean we would have the early-morning light of a south-facing window lighting our subject. Or, if we are using studio lighting, we would use a harder light at a low angle to force the shadow, instead of two big softboxes on each side of the object, which would give a flatter light. 


In landscape photography, we look for great shadows to bring shape to our foreground and background subjects, to give depth to the photograph, and again, to bring something flat to life. This is one of the reasons we shoot late in the day: Besides the good color of the light, we get a better quality of the light, or more precisely, we get a better shadow as the sun gets lower towards the horizon. This is a reason that winter is one of my favorite times of the year to shoot, as the sun is at a lower angle to the horizon throughout the entire day.

When shooting architecture, shadow will bring out the detail, the texture and the scale.

Portrait photography is an area where shadow can really make all the difference, whether it is celebrating the shadow in, say, a Rembrandt-style lighting pattern, or a Butterfly lighting setup, or placement of the shadow differently on broad or short lighting.

You may need to use less shadow to control the amount of texture. Think back to our tablecloth, and how it was the shadows that made the lines at the creases visible. Well, think about it as it applies to the human face. If we use hard light and highlight the shadow, we will bring out the detail of every line and wrinkle on a person's face.

Now, that may be okay in a man or an older person, where you want to show character, or even age. That’s a great and acceptable way to use Shadow. But we can also do the opposite and control the shadow, and use a softer flatter light so that, say, a middle-aged woman’s face appears smoother and wrinkle free. They all appreciate that.

So next time you go out to shoot, don’t find “The light”, instead find “The Shadow”

Happy New Year!

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A good, thoughtful post.  Thanks.