Lately, I see more and more “flat” images, and I constantly hear the terms “fill in the shadows”, and “maintaining shadow detail”. Many new photographers try their hardest to light everything evenly, and eliminate the very essence which creates emotions: Shadows.
Late at night, the silhouette of a man with a knife… it’s a scary image, but only until you turn on the lights, and you see Jamie Oliver cutting celery. It’s the shadows which make all the difference.
The direction of light and the shadows produced define and change our perception. We guide the viewers eyes to the brightest areas of a photograph, while the shadows create character and provoke an emotional reaction. Shadows help us understand a scene gives us hints about the direction of light, it’s quality (harsh or soft), create the feeling of early morning, mid-day, late afternoon or evening. Shadows give us depth and dimension.
Nearly all great landscape images have been shot early in the morning or in the later afternoon, capturing not “just” the warmer colours, but also the lower angle, and with it stronger shadows. And the same principal applies to all photography, of course.
So why do we see so many “flat” and over-lit images in studios?
When we get into photography, we are fascinated by going “out there” and capturing moments. As we progress, we get to know our gear better, we start to see the world differently, and we change our mindset from “capturing moments” to “creating scenes”. We start to see and play with light. We watch tutorials on youtube and read articles about lighting setups and ratios, and too quickly, we fall into the trap of believing that “more is better”, we invest in several strobes, reflectors, the full monty. We get absorbed by all the technical aspects, and as a result, we over-light everything, and produce images which might be technically perfect, but have lost the emotional impact.
Over the years, I have accumulated a huge array of lights, modifiers, gels and gobos, but the more I learn, the less I use, and I come back to my favourite lighting setup again and again: One simple light, one direction, one shadow.
So how do we learn where to place the light, how to control it, how to create the scene?
I encourage you to forget about the youTube tutorials for a moment, and start with observing what natures does for us. Spend an afternoon walking through the city and just look for shadows. Try to figure out, why they fall where they fall. Walk through your house and do the same. Watch your favourite movies on DVD, and when you get to an emotional scene, press pause, and look for the direction of light, and the shadows. Do the same with paintings of old masters, and the photographs you love.
As silly as it may sound, a good way to learn about light and shadows is to use a decent size torch and an egg. Observe how the light wraps around it. Get the light close, and the shadow will be soft. Move the light away, and the shadows will get more defined. Light it from the side, and you’ll get dimension, light it straight on, and the egg will turn into a two dimensional oval. This simple experiment shows, what influence the relative size of the light has to our subject, the closer the bigger, and the bigger the softer. It’s really that simple.
The more we experiment, and the more we understand lights and shadows, the more we are in control of creating the mood we want. We use the light to guide the eyes of the viewer, and purposely create shadows to hide what we don’t want to be seen.
Don’t be afraid of the dark, use it to your advantage! For me, shadows are one of the most powerful weapon in my arsenal of tricks ;)
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