Light and shadow photography: how to use themes, motifs and effects

The use of negative space is a common practice in many forms of medium, but in photography, you shoot what you see. Without using a number of creative post-shoot editing techniques that will make the image’s artifice obvious, you will need other methods to generate a similar effect: enter the shadow. Shadows provide image without form, distinction without substance. In this way, you can use shadows to mimic a similar effect as other artist manufacture with negative space.

Light and shadow photography for photography beginner

However, unlike other forms of negative space, shadows do not engage with the other elements of a photographic composition the same way as with other mediums. Regardless the techniques, the use of negative space with two or three dimensional mediums still function on the same dimensional plane. As such, it is far easier to blend negative space within a medium that works within a single dimensional plane.

Photography on the other hand generally works with shadow in two dimensions while the rest of the image is rendered in three. While there are a few techniques to provide shadow the illusion of three dimensionality, most of the time your images that engage in shadow work will rely on a bifurcated planes whereby the forms and the shadows rely on clever use of fore and background. Still, with the proper setup, shadows can provide an excellent contrast and conceit to breathe unique life into your photographs.

Themes and Motifs: models, outdoor or products

One difficult quality of working with shadow involves the human’s subconscious. The dark is an evolutionarily threatening setting, and the products of dark seem likewise sinister in nature. This, however, can be a blessing in disguise because it focuses your angle of intent with your composition. When shooting photographs with the use of shadow, it can serve well embrace the insidious quality of the dark. In doing so, you can find a number of ready-made compositions that lend themselves naturally to the use of shadow. Shadows as actual threats are an ideal approach for this as the already threatening quality of the dark lends itself in providing as sense of willing suspension of disbelief. In this, the shadows can assume a life of their own and be subjects in their own right.

See if you can work shadows into a composition as a malicious entity stalking another person. To provide the right scale, ensure that the individual casting the shadow is an appropriate distance from the light source. Likewise, shadows can provide a sense of impending doom. Like in a movie where a colossal threat blots out the sun, the shadows of objects within close proximity of a subject can similarly foreshadow a calamitous scenario.

Natural picture look or art filter? Color and Darkness settings

While shadows are naturally understood to be the absence of light, that is not the only form in which they can occur. Technically, obscured but not entirely obstructed light still creates a shadow. Naturally, this effect occurs with a penumbra whereby the edges of a shadow are a bit fuzzier than the body. Generally, outside of the natural manifestation through penumbras, this effect is only observed with semi-transparent substances or negative shots. For instance, an umbrella with thin colored plastic will often allow light through, creating colored shadows. With this effect, you can technically use this in a far more creative way to layer or position thin colored plastic to drastically effect the composition of the shot. This can generate a similar effect as colored film over the lens or light source but allow more control.

Another possibility is using what is known as sunprint paper. This is paper that is light reactive, similar to the silver alloy of traditional film. Of course, this paper does not actually capture the image, but simply reacts on a chemical level to the light itself. Ultimately, this creates an image that appears to be similar to a negative film image, where the subjects are highlighted in monochrome while the background is darkened.

Shadow as Subject of your perfect photography

While shadows are often used as a conceit or effect, if the composition is prepared properly, they can suffice as the actual subject of a shot as well. This involves there being no actual people in the shot or else the audience’s eye will inherently be drawn to them as the subject. However, if shadows simply interact with shadows, the audience will still gravitate towards the humanoid shapes as subject. One way this can be accomplished is by using actual human subjects against a backdrop of light. Essentially, there are people, but the bright light silhouettes them, preventing distinguishing characteristics from coming to the fore. As such, the subjects become an indistinct mass of darkness that can be effective for highlighting the action of the photograph as the actual subject, rather than the actors.

Conversely, you can use shadows in action similarly with different results. The idea of shadow boxing is intimately embedded in our psyche through other forms of media. In this way, the shadows can tell a story without the actual people being involved. Another example of this would be the shadows of two people in an embrace. Again, we as the audience understand that the implied subjects are off frame, but the eye will still be drawn to the shadows as subjects. There are numerous other ways you can use shadows to spice up your shots. Having subjects half-shadowed is an excellent way to add drama. The subject casting a shadow to the foreground can provide a three dimensionality to the image—subverting the general rule of shadow and form juxtaposing and instead blending. So play around with shadows and see what type of creative compositions you can come up with.