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In Praise of Shadows

Eros statue in London's Piccadilly Square

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.

This Civil War cannon at the Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia is silhouetted by the setting sun.  Silhouettes are an especially effective use of shadows.  They work best with sharply defined subjects and simple compositions.

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.

The light in this tunnel at the ancient Cornish fort at Tintagel is an illustration of receding shadows.  The bright outdoors light at the end of the tunnel is reflected toward the position of the camera which remains in near total darkness.  The blackness of the tunnel’s roofline also exemplifies the use of shadows as background to frame a subject of interest.  The overall effect is one of mystery and offers a sense of discovery.  Might the legendary King Arthur have traversed this pathway, one wonders?

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.

This image of the Pima County, Arizona, courthouse dome is an example of volumetric lighting.  In this example, gentle shading from right to left reveals the volume of the dome.  Had the lighting been frontal, the dome would have appeared to be flat.
Shadows from the overhead beams at a tourist rest stop in Arizona create sharp geometric lines that outline the view of saguaro cacti appearing in the window.  This exemplifies both the use of shadows as background, as cast shapes, and as repetition in composition, all effective means of employing shadows to engage viewer interest.
A range of mountains in Arizona shows layers of silhouette as they recede into the distance.  This is a specialized form of silhouetting that relies on haze, fog, or smoke to separate the distant layers of mountains.
A young elephant in Kenya whose profile is outlined by backlighting.  The rim lighting on its head and ear, as well as the dust at its feet, contribute intrigue to the image. 
The spiral staircase in the Queen’s House, Greenwich, England, exemplifies a gradual progression of shadows that Michael Freeman calls “graded shadow.”  This type of shadowing reveals structure through gentle variations in tone.  It is found most often in architecture and studio setups but only rarely in natural settings.
The sharply-defined shadow of a steam locomotive is an illustration of a cast shadow, in which the shape of an identifiable subject is projected onto a nearby surface.  Cast shadow images sometimes also include the subject whose shadow is reflected.
This Québecois glassblower, lit by a single light source from above and behind, suggests chiaroscuro lighting.  Chiaroscuro lighting, as it is now understood, relies on a single light source uninterrupted by the atmosphere but filtered through intervening objects.  Chiaroscuro lighting can result in sharply patterned shadows or, as in this instance, dramatic profiling of the subject.
This image of an arcade in one of Washington’s federal government buildings illustrates several types of lighting.  The gently receding shadow from the foreground into the distance exemplifies receding shadows.  The soft outlines of the pillars onto the pathway show a gentle form of cast shadows, as well as the compositional device of repetition.  And the photographer in the foreground is in silhouette.  This combination of shadowing makes this image especially effective.
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