Photographers often use the phrase “it’s all about the light” as they seek to create compelling images. And it’s certainly true that variations in the amount, direction, and quality of light are important to making the kinds of images that draw attention. At the same time, it’s important not to neglect the shadows in photographs. However, they’re often relegated to subordinate roles and neglected as the places where light did not happen to fall. That’s unfortunate, for shadows hold critical importance in making images that demand attention.
Shadows have critical importance for images that demand attention.
Shadows merit being seen as more than the absence of light. For one thing, especially when they take on definite shapes, shadows can comprise compositional elements within photographs. Also, while it’s true that a viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn to the lighter and brighter parts of an image, without the presence of shadows as a counterpoint those brighter tones would lose their power of attraction. In the extreme, deep shadows make up significant areas of negative space with a total image and are essential to drawing attention to the zones where you wish the eye to rest.
But more than that, the tonal range of shadows is quite wide, ranging from total black to subtly textured tones to more gently shaded areas within overall bright images. At their greatest depth, shadows impart a sense of mystery by withholding details and thus inviting curiosity and speculation. Finally, by revealing the direction of the light’s source, shadows add meaning to the interpretation of the light areas of an image.
Shadows can impart a sense of mystery by withholding details and thus inviting curiosity and speculation.
The photos presented here are chosen to reflect some of the types of shadows identified by Michael Freeman in his recent and excellent book Light & Shadow. His work has inspired me to reexamine the ways I’ve used shadows in my own photography over the years and to heighten my sensitivity to the power and possibilities for using shadows to create stronger and more compelling images.
As Freeman notes, post-processing shadows is an art in its own right, and careful treatment is needed to prevent the deeper tones of an image from being averaged into middle tones. As he emphasizes, modern cameras and processing software are designed to handle the middle tones the best. To avoid losing the depth of creative potential from shadows, careful exposure and attention to the histogram is essential. Post-processing is a much deeper subject than I can discuss here. Freeman’s book is highly recommended for those who wish to delve more deeply into the subject.
For my part, I’ll continue to explore the ways I can use shadows to strengthen my own photographs to make them more powerful and inviting. Thanks to Freeman, going forward I’ll have a keener awareness of shadows and how I can use them to improve my photographic output.
I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.
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