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  • Writer's pictureRubber Monkey

Getting Creative with Shadows and Light

The word photography literally translates to ‘drawing with light’ in Greek. Artists are masters at using different shades of light and dark to create striking art. The same can be said about a photographer. A photographer needs to use light and shadows to create a picture. If you are starting your photography journey, understanding how light works can make a huge difference when wielding your camera.

Time Your Photos For The Golden Hour

When photographing a scene, try to avoid the harsh light of the day. There’s too much contrast between highlights and shadow areas, leading to a loss of detail in the overall composition. Instead, aim to photograph during the Golden Hour.

This small window of 20 minutes before the sun rises and after the sun sets is ideal for balancing out the highlight and shadow areas of a scene. By waiting for these times, you will be met with a warming light that transforms any object into a thing of beauty. It’s especially good at making skin tones pop. 

Use Window Light 

If you plan on photographing someone and you don’t have a lighting setup, turn to the next best thing – a window. What you should look for is indirect light that filters through a closed window. If you want to take portraits, then you want to position your person near or next to the window, you will obtain a stunning soft light that softens skin and makes your subject glow.

We also recommend combining this with a dark background to separate your subject from your background. To do this, change your lens aperture to a wide-open position (something like f/2.8 or f/4).

Not Enough Light? Try Using Artificial Light

There’s an excellent reason why camera retailers have an extensive range of lighting systems such as strobes, flash and modifiers. The simple answer is that we cannot always rely on natural light to provide the illumination we need. Artificial lighting is an essential element in many photography genres, including portraits, events, pet photography and fine art. 

Artificial lighting allows us to precisely shape and control the light and shadows within a composition. Aside from an ever-expanding range of flash, speedlights, strobes and constant LEDs, there’s an exhaustive range of lighting accessories. With light stands, softboxes, reflectors and triggers, you create subtle or dramatic lighting effects. These effects significantly elevate the composition and exposure of the images to new heights. Even a single camera-mounted flash can make all the difference when used correctly. 

Look For Compositions In Reflects and Shadows

Before you even look through your viewfinder, it’s best to look all around you. Look up and especially behind you, as the lighting will certainly change based on your position. Once you have seen a composition consider how the scene might look at different times of the day or from different angles.

For instance, if you stumble across a street, would the people walking by be more interesting if they have long shadows behind them? Timing your shoot in the early morning or late afternoon is worth considering as it can produce incredible composition results.

Look For Shadows To Gain Interesting Shapes

While many photographers define photography as the pursuit of light, looking for shadows is just as important. Without elements of shadow in a composition, it can appear flat and two-dimensional. By purposely seeking out shadows in a scene, you instantly add depth and drama to a set of photos. Shadows and what is hidden in the darkness plays on our minds to add drama and mystery – even a little bit of fear. 

In an otherwise well-lit scene, the fall of shadows can draw the viewer on a journey through a composition. Especially if those shadows form leading lines or partially hide strong elements. A person walking out of a sunlight path and into shadow can be more dramatic and exciting than just having them completely lit. The same applies in landscape photography, where the sun illuminates one flank of a mountain while the other flank and valley below fall into shadow. 

Try Light Painting: Photograph At Night With Long Exposures

Another form of introduced light can turn an everyday scene into a dramatic work of art. Light painting is a technique used to add light patterns in a dark setting. Your camera captures light in a dark scene with a slow shutter speed, such as an outdoor landscape shoot. But with the help of a torch, lantern or even flame, you can paint a subject with light. The result is an image where the dark background is in contrast to the lit subject. 

Other popular forms of light painting include the use of steel wool set on fire and twirled on a string. Over the long exposure of several seconds, the spinning steel wool forms a cylindrical pattern with off-shoot sparks. A new entry in light painting is to fit a powerful LED to a drone and fly it in a circle around a landscape subject. The final results are other-worldly and mesmerizing. 

Create Striking Photos By Emphasizing Shadows Using Black and White

Black and White (B&W) photography has been around for centuries and has stood the test of time. Now either in-camera or in the edit suite, you can recreate this timely technique to help draw the viewer into your photo. Creating contrast in a scene is a sure way to get people’s attention. Combining this with the use of black and white removes any colour distractions from the photo.

If you look through the winners of photo competitions, you’re bound to see a black and white photo as a finalist. These simple, striking images usually are well thought out and take advantage of high contrast lighting scenarios. For the best results, we recommend exposing your image and then increasing the contrast using the curve tool in your favourite editing software. What you should try and replicate is an ‘S’ curve. This pattern increases the exposure of the highlight areas while crushing the blacks for that ultimate contrasty look.


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