How to Create Depth and Drama in an Image Using Shadows

PHOTO:  Daniela Avila

Professional photographers and videographers spend several hours a day chasing the light. It’s true that the light on location can and will determine the outcome of a shoot. But the best photographers know that it is equally important to understand light’s counterpart, the shadow.

Shadows can be both elusive and scary to new photographers. If you look on photo sharing sites, you will immediately notice how many people have a tendency to simply get rid of all the shadows in their photograph. You might notice yourself doing it, too. By using post-production editing tools to ramp up the light in your photo, you may manage to completely highlight your subject, stripping it of any shadows captured by the camera.

This is not necessarily wrong. It is simply different. But photographers must be aware of the fact that by stripping an image of its shadows, they are simultaneously stripping it of any depth. Have you ever noticed how a photograph without any shadows makes it appear flat? Conversely, by simply reinstating those shadows, you will see the image take on a new dimension.

While fully highlighting your subject is not to say that you haven’t created something beautiful, shadows simply add a poignancy and realism to a photo that draws a viewer in. If you want to learn more about how shadows can alter your final image, try playing around with these four different concepts, and watch how your photo changes.

1. Consider making the shadow the subject of your photograph:

If the object you’re photographing has a distinct, recognizable shape—a bicycle, a tree, a rocket— you may want to try making the shadow itself the subject of your image. You may want to take the object completely out of the frame and shoot only the shadow. Or add the object into the photograph, but allow its long, dramatic shadow to be the focal point.

Sunny days and bright spaces are best for capturing these sorts of distinct shadows that tell the viewer exactly what they’re looking at. If you want long, extended shadows and added drama, shoot first thing in the morning or later in the day when the sun is lower in the sky.

2. Use shadows to set the location:

When choosing a location to shoot, a set or space with distinct features will help set the location of your photograph. Consider a warehouse with partitioned windows or an atrium with a long staircase. These sorts of things will cast shadows that are recognizable to your audience, and will thus give your viewer an idea of the setting and mood of your image.

Repetition and symmetry can also add depth to your photograph.  You’ve likely seen photographs in your photo sharing streams, where a subject is reflected across the X-axis into a body of water showing both the subject and its mirrored image. By monitoring the sun and its shadow, a photographer can mimic this same effect indoors, capturing both an image and it’s perfectly reflected mirrored image.

Check out this tutorial on ways a photographer set mood and location using shadows and nothing but an iPhone.

PHOTO:  Brooke Cagle

3. Capture that pensive, brooding portrait:

Okay, here is the super secret trick that professional portrait photographers love to capitalize on: If you want to create a pensive, brooding photo, turn your subject perpendicular to your light source and let the light hit them on the side of the face. It’s that simple. By turning a subject perpendicular to the light source (preferably window light), and letting the light hit one side of their face, the opposite side will fall within a shadow. This portrait photographer has outlined exactly how to manipulate shadows across your subject’s face.

You’ve likely seen the compelling photographs of older men or women with deep wrinkles cut across their face and you feel like they could tell one thousand stories. Well— besides the fact that they probably can— that captivating feeling that draws you in, makes you want to listen, is largely due to the photographer’s use of shadows. With the shadows, a two-dimensional medium is given three-dimensional characteristics. The subject comes alive. And you, as a viewer, find yourself wondering about their story.

4. Try colored shadows:

When people think of shadows, they think of black and white. But many photographers manufacture colored shadows using color gels and diffuser filters. Think about a band on stage with colored lights that rotate above them. This light casts colored light and colored shadows across the stage. It is the same concept in photography. If you want to work with colored shadows, here’s an easy, step-by-step guide on how to DIY your own colored diffuser filters