Working with shadows in your photography

6 min read
Black and white photo of a woman walking on a curved road

We photographers pay a great deal of attention to light, and for good reason. In photography, light is at the core - it shapes what we see and how we see it.

However, we tend to focus on light so much that darkness, the absence of light, is often overlooked. This is unfortunate since darkness and shadows are important as well. The interplay between them and the different shades of light can produce truly spectacular images.

Shadows can draw attention to specific points in a composition. In addition to revealing form, they can also hide undesirable features. Shadows can be used to add drama, emotion, or mystery to a photograph. Additionally, they can draw attention to highlights in an image by emphasizing the light.

Beginning with shadow photography is relatively easy, and there isn't a steep learning curve. Here are some ways we can use shadows to create dynamic - and exciting - images.

  1. Add contrast

    Shadows are a great way to add tonal contrast to an image since lowlights contrast beautifully with highlights in a photo. Shadows create contrast especially in black and white photos, which lack color to add interest.

    When composing your images, pay attention to the light and shadows to create a strong composition.

    Black and white photo of childrem walking back from school. Overhead drone shot showing the elongated shadows dropping behind them
  2. Serve as a focal point

    Shadows make great subjects! You can incorporate a shadow with the subject as part of the focal point. Alternatively, consider composing only with shadows. The effect is particularly effective if your subject has a strong outline, such as a person, vehicle, etc.

    Photo of a mans outline standing in an abandoned factory
  3. Reveal texture

    Shadows can also reveal a landscape's texture. In low light, the sun casts shadows across the land, bringing out details and adding interest.

    Dramatic lighting is often sought by photographers as it can be used to emphasize the curve and angle of rolling hills, mountain peaks, and other landscapes.

    Photo of a man standing on a beach during sunrise
    Pro tip: Architecture photography is a great place to learn shadow photography!
  4. Emphasize motion

    Light makes an image appear bright and cheerful, while shadows convey strong emotions, particularly in portrait photography. Shadows add a sense of mystery and drama to a composition. Think of a dancer shrouded in darkness or a subject that’s partially obscured by a shadow. The use of predominantly dark tones is known as low-key photography, which captures images that move viewers emotionally. Photo of a mask wearing woman standing in the hallway

  5. Add depth and dimension

    Shadows and light can be used to create a sense of distance in an image, allowing you to create images with depth and dimension. The same is true for landscapes and close-ups. Image of two women passing by pillars

  6. Frame your subject

    Although shadows may not be your subject in some cases, they can still guide your viewer’s eye through an image. One way to do this is to use shadows from an object to frame your subject. We can also use shadows as leading lines to draw our attention toward distant subjects.

    Pro tip: Clean, crisp shadows go especially well with minimalism.
    Black and white photo of a woman climbing down stairs against a bright background
  7. Add mystery

    Sometimes a bit of mystery is what piques the interest of the viewer in a photograph. There's something enticing about shadows, which pulls you into the scene and makes you curious.

    Black and white portrait of a young black man

    These types of enigmatic images which creatively include both light and shadow are great to add drama to your photos.

  8. Create a sense of space

    . A shadow gives the viewer a better understanding of the subject's context. Using shadows, we can understand where the light is coming from, what elements may be outside the frame, etc.

    Black and white architectural photo of a building entrance flanked by pillars
  9. Look for clean outlines

    As architects design buildings, they consider how light changes throughout the day and through the seasons. That's why architecture makes a great subject matter for shadow photography.

    Pro tip: A building's shape and volume can help you create a wide diversity of shadows. You can also use it as an exercise to understand how hard and soft light create different types of shadows.
    Architectural photo of a building
Extra tips for capturing shadows

Keep an eye out for great opportunities to include shadows in your images. Take advantage of dramatic lighting after a storm or haze to capture beautiful shadows.

  • Morning vs daytime light - you’ll get longer and more dramatic shadows in the morning hours with the sun closer to the horizon. If you're taking portraits during the day, place some obstruction (like a palm leaf) between your subject and the sun to get sharp shadows
  • Camera mode - keep your camera in manual mode when capturing shadows. This will give you more control over the exposure and resulting images. Shadows can be emphasized by underexposing your images and adjusting them appropriately in post
  • Histogram setting - the histogram view on your camera can help you determine the correct exposure. If your shot is too bright, dial the exposure down to deepen the shadows

In addition to light, the absence of light also plays a significant role in photography. Intentionally manipulating or working with light in your images will help you produce photos that have drama, depth, and lots of visual interest.

Do you use shadows in your photography? Feel free to share your tips and photos with us. If you are interested in photo opportunities, please contact us here.