10 Tips For Working With Shadows In Photography

I’ve heard it said that photography is writing with light and shadows are the punctuation. And darkness within a shot can heighten the drama while defining shapes and bringing the scene into three dimensions.

You do not need to be afraid of using shadows and darkness in your images. With the right techniques you can write a truly beautiful story with your photography.

How To Take Pictures In Low Light Conditions

1) Create Silhouettes

man Silhouette standing on rocks

This classic technique is probably the most used by low light photographers. This effect brings your subject to completely black and is most oft created by using a backlit subject. Set your lighting directly behind your subject for the simplest silhouette shots. Be careful with this technique as it is used frequently so creativity is needed to avoid being clichéd.

Tip: For studio shots allow your subject to be rim lit for an interesting silhouette. For moving nature pictures use burst mode to perfectly capture the moment.

2) Use Shadows and Darkness To Highlight Shapes

trees viewed from below

All good rules can be broken and the old one that says no shooting with direct overhead sunlight is one of them. For example, when shooting rounded trees for gorgeous fall color with the sun directly overhead can produce incredibly eye catching results. You will capture small shadows cast by leaves for interesting scene elements.

For this particular shot compose a wide scene with multiple rounded tree tops for dramatic results.

Tips: Another great application of this technique is shooting umbrellas (beach or café) when the sun is high so it casts shadows that highlight their shape.

3) Utilize Negative Reflectors

profile portrait of woman

You can use flags, black cards or panels, to bring down bright parts of a scene. Flags are often used in portrait photography and product photography studios but you can use them too.

They are designed to prevent spill over from a studio lighting. It adds definition to shapes by directing shadows. You can do the same thing with a gobo. These devices fit over a studio light and allow you to narrow the light beam.

Tip: When shooting portraits use shadows over parts of the scene for a dramatically mysterious vibe. Experiment with casting different portions of your scene in shadows.

4) Take Advantage of Dark Frame Noise Reduction

Night photographers understand that noise is more of a problem with dark areas of a picture than brighter ones.

Most DSRL’s offer a mode called Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This mode captures a second frame without exposure and uses it to subtract from the exposure of the actual image.

Tip: Another great way to handle heavy shadows shot with a high ISO is to convert them to black and white. This will greatly reduce your noise.

5) Make Landscapes More Dynamic With Shadow

There is more to the “Golden Hour” than just the amazing colors cast across the landscape. The shadows created by the setting or rising sun creates dark shadows that add life and dimension to your landscape photography.

You can capture stunning side-lighting by shooting landscapes from the North or South.

Tip: Use a meter to check your landscape’s medium lit areas and allow the shadows to fall.

6) Use Exposure Compensation

Use a dark exposure when shooting a dark scene and do this by using exposure comp. This setting works in all camera modes. You also do not need to keep your histogram centered and it actually will look better if your scene is clipped on the left side.

Tip: You can maintain the late day blues by setting to tungsten white balance.

7) Make Daytime Scenes Look Like It’s Night

This is a great technique for night photographers. You can underexpose an image and just like magic, a day scene will look like night.

You have to underexpose it by a lot though. Up to as many as four stops to make this work. Some street photographers use this technique and simply edit streetlamps and headlights later to make them look like they are lit.

Tp: Use an overall neutral density filter when using this technique for a really cool effect. You can give life to wind blown trees or moving water.

8) Use A Flash To Bring Light to Dark

Use a flash to illuminate the foreground of a dark scene for a dramatic effect. When shooting at night or low light outside do this while keeping the background dark.

It works particularly well when shooting at last light. Snap your subject using a setting of -1 to -2 on your flash.

Tip: At night set your white balance to daylight and add amber gel to your flash and you can create the effect of a sunset.

9) Add Texture to Your Scene

portrait of woman in black and white

Use naturally occurring shadows in portrait or still life photography by using window lighting. You can use blinds or other items to alter how the light shines on your subject for a very cool look reminiscent of the 1940’s.

Tip: Cut shapes out of a panel and put it in front of your studio lights for a similar effect.

10) Use Darkness to Create Definition

Utilize naturally occurring objects for framing shadows. A backlit object in nature, a window sill, or any other object can be used to add definition to a scene via shadows.

Expose the scene within your frame and you will create interesting compositions.

Tips: When shooting a city use the natural shadows to accentuate the lit portions of your scene.

Conclusion

Shadows are one of my favorite tools for creating life and truly interesting scenes. There are endless ways to utilize and even manufacture shadows and darkness should be used with intention. With practice any of these tips and techniques can help you capture more interesting scenes.