Photography Light and Shadow

“It’s all about the light.” “To photograph is to write with light.” Photographers devote so much time and discussion to the subject of light that it’s easy to misunderstand its emphasis. New photographers often interpret the focus on light in photography as a need for even, direct light–and lots of it–in every scene they photograph. But, it’s light and shadows together that make a great photograph.

While quantity of light is an important factor in creating photographs, there’s more to making an interesting image than shining even light at your subject. In most cases, even light falling across a subject eliminates all shadow and leaves the person or object in a photo looking flat. However, subtle shadows on one side of a person’s face provide a sense of shape. And a beam of light shining into a room through a small passageway, leaving much of it in shadow, makes it look three dimensional. It’s the way the light is used in combination with shadows that makes a subject come to life.

Photography Light & Shadow

Vodable – cave – 14-07-2006 – 20h53 by Panoramas

The shadows in this photograph of a wine cellar give it a three dimensional feel–it looks as if you could step right into the scene.

Shadows as Subjects

Aside from adding depth to images, shadows themselves can be the subject of a photograph. There’s something mysterious about a dark form. The viewer is left wondering about the person or thing casting the shadow. And shadows can be used to artistically fill in an otherwise empty space in a frame.

Photography Light & Shadow

summer’s out – school’s in by Bùi Linh Ngân

Flipping this photo upside down emphasizes the shadow and temporarily disorients the viewer.

Photography Light & Shadow

ninja cat by Robert Couse-Baker

A cat’s long, dramatic shadow becomes the main attraction in this fun photo taken from above.

Patterns and Lines

Similarly, shadows create interesting architectural stripes and patterns that bring interest to a photo. Window frames and fences often cast long, bending shadows that change as the sun rises and sets. These shadows create the leading lines and curves that are essential to expert composition.

Photography Light & Shadow

Chiaroscuro by Karsten Seiferlin

Without the striped, patterned shadows, this photo would not have been as interesting.

Photography Light & Shadow

walk the walk by Thomas Leth-Olsen

Shadows in this image form leading lines that draw the viewer’s eye to a man walking. The shadows also play on the photo’s theme of pattern and symmetry.

Light and Shadow Assignment

On your next photo walk, give yourself an assignment. Rather than search for particular, tangible subjects that would make an interesting snapshot, look for the interaction of light and shadow. If you’re not used to paying attention to this relationship, the task can be more difficult than it sounds.

This assignment is best accomplished when the sun is low on the horizon, because there are longer shadows, and the light is less harsh. However, photographing light and shadow at midday is another challenge that helps you see how light changes throughout the day and teaches you how to work with hard light.

Photography Light & Shadow

window light by Rachel.Adams

The portrait subject’s face is framed by the shadows cast by a window frame. Explore creative ways of incorporating shadows into your images.

Photography Light & Shadow

Esprit de Corps by Evonne

Try shooting in monochrome. Black and white imagery is useful in accentuating the relationship between light and shadow.

Including both light and shadow in photos gives your subjects form, depth, and texture. Shadows add contrast and drama to otherwise dull photographs. Watching how light’s quality changes and plays with shadows is a key skill that will help those new to photography transition from beginners to advanced photographers.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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