Photographing Shadows. Tips for getting started

Half a dozen pairs of hands raised in the air casting different shadows on a grey wall

Image (c) Melissa Kee Tin Ordonez

Shadows are often something that is underappreciated in photography. When we look at an image, or the subject in front of our cameras, our eyes naturally focus in on the light in the scene. Our minds, too, are geared to think about what we’re looking at based on light, and we don’t consciously think about the shadows. We may not even notice they’re there.

That alone makes it worthwhile photographing them for a couple of different reasons: it will train your mind to start thinking outside the box, to compose your shots a little more creatively, and, once you’ve got a hang of that, you will likely start looking at the lighting in your scenes far more intentionally.

Photographing Shadows as the Subject

It can take quite a shift in your mind to purposely look at shadows rather than what is actually casting them. One of the easiest ways to get started is to go looking for shadows in your environment and make those shadows the subject of your photograph. The problem with this is that shadows can be pretty boring by themselves. They are, after all, just an indistinct, dark, usually fuzzy shape.

Therein lies the key. Shadows by themselves are most interesting when they’re already interesting shapes. Go out on a clear, sunny day looking intentionally at shadows and you will be amazed at how many interesting shadow shapes there really are.

They can be interesting on their own because of what’s casting them, or simply because of what they’re falling on. Oftentimes, especially in the case of geometric shadows, or shadows without an easily identified shape, it’s a good idea to at least partially include the object that’s casting them in the shot to give the viewer some context. This will also add interest to your image. (Alternatively, you could go for something really abstract and minimal instead.)

But remember, we’re photographing the shadow as the subject here, and not the object that’s casting it. You want to make the shadow the subject of your photograph. You want it to be the first thing the eye is drawn to. You want the viewer to look at your image and consciously recognise that they are looking at a photograph of a shadow, rather than barely noticing that it’s even there.

Shadow of a star pattern cast from an ornate iron chair

A narrow depth of field (f4.0) has been used here to ensure the eye is drawn to the shadow.

There are several different ways of doing this, all of which are basic principles of composition and design. Here are just a few:

1. Keep it simple

Make sure you have a single, clearly defined shadow. Shadows that overlap often lose their shape, merging instead into an indistinct blob. Be careful of the surface your shadow is on as well, as this can sometimes distract from your shadow just as much as your object can.

2. Contrast

Take advantage of the natural contrast between light and dark. You can see this in the shots above. Shooting on a bright, sunny day helps with this immensely.

3. Depth of field

Use a narrower depth of field and get just the shadow, or what it’s falling on, sharp and in focus. Shadows have a tendency to go fuzzy depending on light and distance from the object, so you don’t usually want the object that’s casting it to be in sharp focus as well, or the eye will be drawn to it instead of to the shadow.

4. Camera angle

Play around with your camera angle, especially if the shadow is being cast on the floor. You can see in the two images below what a difference camera angle makes!

You have to admit, the first image is incredibly boring, and not just because the shadow is less distinct after a few clouds drifted across the sun. All you can say about this first photo is that it’s of a gate casting a bit of a shadow. Whereas the second one is clearly the shadow of a gate. Why? Contrast, depth of field, and camera angle.

In this case, if I didn’t include the gate itself in the image, you’d still be able to tell just from the shadow what it was. But having the gate adds a whole lot of interest and depth to the image that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

Using Shadows for Effect

Once you’ve got a handle on looking intentionally at shadows that already exist, you can start thinking about creating your own shadows, and then using them for effect. This ties in with lighting, but you certainly don’t need any special lighting equipment to create shadows. At night time, just grab a flash light, a lamp, a candle, or your phone, and start looking at what kind of shadows you can create when you move your light around. (You’ll likely need a tripod.)

Here are a couple things you can try to help get you started:

Interesting shadows cast by a wine glass with flower patterns on its cup

  1. Play around with the length of your shadow. Lights positioned lower down cast longer shadows, which are often more interesting than shorter ones.
  2. Vary the direction your shadow is falling. Don’t just shoot it straight onto a wall. Try having it falling off to one side, or coming directly towards the camera as well for some more interesting compositions.
  3. Change the distance between your object and your light. Also try changing the distance between your object and the surface it’s casting a shadow on. This affects the strength and fuzziness of your shadow.
  4. Vary the position and angle of your light. Rather than pointing your light straight at your wall, have it coming in on an angle. This will change the shapes of your shadows dramatically!
  5. Try photographing the shadow of a semi-transparent object, such as sunglasses, stained glass windows, or drinking glasses filled with coloured water. You’ll get an interesting play of light over the top of your shadow due to colour, reflections, and refraction.

Also don’t forget to try casting your shadows onto other objects as well. For example, you can create really powerful images by casting shadows on a person’s face. Doing so adds mood and drama to a shot, and can help to tell a story. Coupled with an appropriate pose or expression, shadows can emphasise emotions such as sadness, depression, fear, and anger. They also bring out texture and depth. Here are a few examples from Stockvault. (Hover your mouse over them to view their captions.)

Conclusion

It can be hard to think about photographing shadows and to come up with ideas of what you can do with them, but the truth is they are so easy to create and manipulate that the possibilities are endless. Since you can’t have one without the other, if you can appreciate light, you can definitely appreciate shadow. And even if you’re not inspired to set up your own shadowy scene, there’s bound to be an interesting shadow nearby just waiting for you to capture it.

2 thoughts on “Photographing Shadows. Tips for getting started”

  1. Heike says:

    Great tutorial. I’ve been looking for a tut that actually explains HOW to photograph shadows and appreciate your easy to understand, yet thorough approach at how to do just that.

    1. Melissa Kee Tin says:

      You’re welcome, Heike! I’m glad it was helpful for you. 🙂

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