Chasing shadows: top tips on how to use shadows in your compositions

Chasing shadows: top tips on how to use shadows in your compositions

Shaddow wheel by Michael Avory

Top tips for finding, using and manipulating light and dark

A shadow is an area where light is blocked. Given that photography is all about light you might think that shadows are to be avoided or are troublesome when on a shoot. Not so! The lack of light rays in a composition can add much-needed contrast and a dramatic punch and even direct the gaze of the viewer toward a particular place in the composition. Light rays are particles called photons that travel in straight lines, so if something intercepts them, a darkness is cast onto a surface. However, you can manipulate them to your artistic ends.

There are several ways to find and use shadows in your photographs, from getting out early in the day to using them for portraits, landscapes and even during rare cosmic events. Here are some of our top tips to get you started… 

1 Using shadow in portraits 

Soul. Photo by JDevaunPhotography - f/2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/100s

Taking a great portrait photo means thinking about the background, the colours, the pose and your perspective. It often also involves using a ‘fill’ light to eliminate shadows on your subject’s face. Many portrait photographers get obsessed with removing all shadows, which can lead to a flat-looking image that lacks contrast. Why not leave the shadows in? Or just photograph the shadow? By allowing and experimenting with shadows cast on your subject's face you can add depth, shape and contrast to your images. A good way to create shadows in portrait images it to use a relatively small light close to your subject. Either way, using shadows in studio environments is much easier than for landscape photographers because artificial lights can be used to create whatever effect you want.

Author tip:

The ‘golden hour’ before sunset is much-loved by portrait photographers. It’s a time the sun is low in the sky (about 6º and below) and appears to lose its brightness, making it easier for subjects to have sunlight on their faces without them having to squint. It’s also possible to get a glint in the eye of subjects from the setting sun. Experiment with the positioning of you, your subject and the setting sun to get the effect you want. 

2 Making shadow the subject

Shadow. Photo by Wolf

If you’re photographing a subject that casts a long shadow – such as a person, a tree or a building – at sunrise or sunset then they will cast a long shadow. Do you ignore it? Or make it the subject of your photo? Do the latter and you can create unusual-looking images that look much more dramatic than if they were taken at midday. The best time to get long shadows in nature is during the ‘golden hours’. Although these periods just after sunrise and before sunset are known for soft light with warm colour temperatures, they’re also a time when long shadows are thrown across landscapes. By capturing a subject and its long shadow across a landscape you immediately add depth to your composition.

Author tip:

The closer the sun is to the horizon the longer the shadows will be, but they will abruptly disappear when the sun gets very low and then sinks. You should be in position well before the ‘golden hour’ commences. There are plenty of apps that will tell you when ‘golden hour’ is in a particular location, including PhotoPills and the Photographer’s Ephemeris.  

3 Finding shadow patterns

Steps. Photo by Miró

Whether you use studio lighting or you’re limited to what the sun and your environment provide it’s possible to use a source of light to create patterns. Artificial lights shone through props like a colander or sieve can create odd-looking shapes and textures on a subject’s face in a portrait. Ditto sunlight streaming through the foliage, cracks in a roof or windows project everything from hazy ill-defined shapes to strong diagonal onto floors, walls and faces.

Author tip:

A related, but different approach to using a lack of light is silhouettes. A silhouette is usually a solid black shape – perhaps of a building, an animal or a person – that’s instantly recognizable just from its outline. To capture a silhouette you need a strong light behind your subject, the classic in landscape photography being dusk or dawn. 

4 Using shadows as signposts

Evening stroll. Photo by Rob Wood

Shadows can be used in compositions as leading lines, guiding the viewer's eye to the point of interest in the frame. They can do that simply by being produced by the subject – for example, the long shadow of a person, a building or even a mountain – but they can also serve a more practical function. By blotting out completely, or at least by lessening, detail in shadowed areas you’re asking the viewer to look elsewhere in a photo. Either way, you can use shadows as compositional signposts to manipulate where you want the viewer to look.

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You can even use shadows to do your post-processing for you. By positioning a shadow – by moving yourself and your camera – it’s possible to use them to cover-over blemishes on faces and unwanted detritus in outdoor photographs. 

5 The biggest shadow of all

The Venus Belt. Photo by Clint le Roux Photography - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/4s

If you’ve ever been outside taking images of landscapes around the ‘golden hour’ then you’ll also have come across that beautiful pink band of light that’s visible in the east opposite where the sun just set in the west. Only visible during this so-called ‘civil twilight’ period just after sunset and around 10º-20º above the horizon, it’s called the “Belt of Venus” simply because it’s around the same height as Venus can be visible (though in practice it’s always opposite where that planet is visible). Its pink glow is a fine thing to capture, but as you do so you’ll notice a blue band rising into it. It’s Earth’s mighty shadow being projected onto the atmosphere. Many photographers capture it. But almost none know the truth about what’s lurking in their compositions.

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The only other time it’s possible to photograph Earth’s shadow is during a lunar eclipse. Earth has two shadows – its dark, defined umbra (central shadow) and its fuzzy, lighter penumbra (outer shadow). When the umbra engulfs a full moon there’s a total lunar eclipse, typically called a ‘blood moon’. When it moves through the penumbra the full moon loses it brightness. A total lunar eclipse is more dramatic and colorful, but a penumbral lunar eclipse is a great time to photograph a full moon.

5/6 May 2023: penumbral lunar eclipse
28/29 October 2023: partial lunar eclipse
24/25 March 2024: penumbral lunar eclipse
17/18 September 2024: partial lunar eclipse
13-14 March 2025: total lunar eclipse
7/8 September 2025: total lunar eclipse
2/3 March 2026: total lunar eclipse
27/28 August 2026: partial lunar eclipse
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