Shadows. 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 that make all the difference.

Direction of the light and the shadows

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 give us hints about the direction of light, its quality (harsh or soft), create the feeling of early morning, midday, 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 colors, but also the lower angle, and with it stronger shadows. And the same principle applies to all photography, of course.

©Lauri Novak

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. Then we start to see the world differently, and we change our mindset from “capturing moments” to “creating scenes.” Eventually, 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 that 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 favorite lighting setup again and again: One simple light, one direction, one shadow.

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 by observing what nature 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 favorite movies on DVD. When you get to an emotional scene, press pause, and look for the direction of light and shadows. Do the same with paintings of old masters, and the photographs you love.

©Lauri Novak

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 on our subject. The closer the light is 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 weapons in my arsenal of tricks.