How to Smartly Use Shadows in Your Photography to Get Amazing Effects

Shadows—for all their subtlety—will add so much to any picture. They’re spectacular for highlighting emotions and generating some really surreal imagery. The best part about them may be the fact that they can be used in so many different ways. Versatility is always a very likeable quality!

Purists will argue that shadows are at their most powerful and potent when used in black-and-white photography. While you can certainly see why people feel that way, the use of shadows in color photographs mainly through silhouettes also creates a memorable effect in its own right.

It all comes down to how a photographer approaches the concept of shadows in snapping pictures. Shadows aren’t simply black masses that border light; rather, they’re entities that are every bit just as alive as the light in a picture! Here’s how you can smartly incorporate the use of shadows in your photography to obtain results that will impress your viewers.

Focus the Attention of the Viewer

Shadows can be utilized to focus the attention of your viewers. Shadows succeed at this by eliminating details from the less vital areas of a picture. Here’s an example. If you have a dramatic portrait that depends on light to illuminate the subject’s eyes yet lets the rest of the face hide within deep shadow, the shadows would obviously conceal the details of much of the face. Therefore, your viewers’ attention will automatically be drawn to the eyes.

Contrast as Well as Drama

Contrast can be incorporated to create high drama in a photograph, and shadows are a highly effective method of achieving this. It’s natural for an individual’s eyes to be drawn to an area of a picture where high tonal contrast is present. Of course, the catch is that any tonal contrast at all is impossible without the presence of shadows. What creates the wonderful and attention-catching contrast is the interplay of shadows and light.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you take a picture of a dramatic sunset that’s characterized by the sunlight punching through various openings in the clouds. This works to produce different sections of light that are surrounded by certain dark areas where the cloud cover is relatively heavy.

Displaying Texture

When shadows are utilized to display texture, they often do so by involving the sun. In a photograph of this nature, the sun will appear at a relatively low angle to the horizon, which causes it to cast shadows over either the terrain or subject. With this approach, a photographer will move in close in order to highlight an object’s texture.

Let’s look at this method in action. If a photographer snaps a picture of a setting sun to focus attention on the ripples of the sand on a beach, he has effectively used shadows to show texture!

Guiding the Viewer’s Attention

Since shadows always have a shape, for the most part, they are ideal at guiding the attention of the viewer where you want it. Let’s say a shadow with a shape points to the picture’s center of interest. The shadow will have guided the attention of the viewer to the center of interest, just like that!

Now, the opposite can also be observed. Let’s say that shaped shadows surround a portion of light that points to the picture’s point of interest. The shadows will then have also guided the viewer’s attention to the center of interest. In either scenario, what happens is that the picture’s effect is made stronger because the center of interest gets reinforced thanks to the use of shadows.

Showcasing Form

The showcasing of form in a photograph is actually one of the most common ways that shadows can be used. Once more, the sun is also incorporated into the shot, typically at a low angle to the horizon. This creates the effect of long shadows being cast across the terrain. If there are any inconsistencies in either the terrain’s or subject’s shape, these will only get magnified.

A nice example of this is when the sun’s low in the sky and then casts long shadows over some sand dunes right before it slips below the horizon for good.

Shadow Distortion

Yet another way to be savvy in the use of shadows is through distortion. You can achieve this shadow-distortion effect simply by taking advantage of a backdrop that has an interesting shape. Even the use of a book can create a highly interesting shadow distortion.

Here’s how it works. Take a very ordinary subject—like a ring—and place it on top of an open book. Depending on where exactly you position your light source, you can cause the ring (standing, not lying down) to cast a shadow on the pages of the book in such a way that said shadow takes on the shape of a heart!

The Upside-Down Effect

Turning a picture upside down seems like something too simple to produce any desirable result, but when you’re working with shadows, even something as basic as this yields wonderful results. If it’s a sunny day and the subject casts a strong shadow on the ground, take a picture.

When you turn the picture upside down, a highly interesting visual effect will take place that won’t be fully understood by your viewers until they take some time to study it! Turning a picture like this upside down will actually cause the subject and shadow to switch places, giving your viewers all sorts of visual tricks to ponder over.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Shadows

In this guide, we saw the many, diverse ways that shadows could be incorporated into everyday photography. The end result is a slew of photographs that draws the eye like nothing else. They smartly use focus, texture and, in some cases, even misdirection to highlight the power of shadows as a way of producing something aesthetically pleasing.

Shadows can be used to obscure, as when they hide facial detail to draw the eye to a certain part of the face. They may also be used to display both texture and form, as when their presence highlights details in the terrain (such as ripples in the sand) or long shadows on a stretch of ground. Sometimes, they’re used simply to give viewers something to really scratch their heads about, as when they’re featured in shadow distortion.

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