10 Jul 2008

Photographing shadows

Narrative and mystery – by including just the shadows of the two people, viewer are encouraged to interpret the picture in their own way. What are the two people saying? What is going on? It looks as though the larger figure is giving the smaller one a dressing down – and that the horse is joining in the conversation. All nonsense, of course, but an expample of the sort of ‘storyline’ that that be introduced when using shadows

Include shadows in your photographs and can show graphically, or express more subtly, anything from lead-in lines, texture, atmosphere, angular or curvaceous shapes, narrative or mystery.
All these things are possible when you use shadows. It is the combinations of shadow and light that produces the illusion of texture and form within the two-dimensional images we produce. Shadows can be subtle and diffused in soft, high quality light, or, if the light source is small and intense, they can have crisp, sharp outlines totally devoid of detail. A typical example of this might be the sun in an empty blue sky, or perhaps the light from an undifused flash.

Shadows can be used as subjects by themselves, or as devices to add interest and leading lines within your composition. Take a look at the picture of the door knocker (below) for example; the shadow forms a major part of the composition. Without it the picture would be very ordinary; a simple record of an object. But the shadow of the brass knocker extends across a large part of the left side of the picture – it has been used not only to accentuate the shape of the knocker and the door nails, but as a compositional device.

Mystery? Well, yes, include only the shadows of people and this can inject a powerful feeling of something or someone unseen; a suggestion of what the person might look like, but without the whole subject revealed plainly. That in itself makes the viewer of your picture look again and try to see more. People are always curious about people so if they cannot see the full features of the subject they are left with their curiosity unsatisfied. This can create a visual puzzle without the answer – and that becomes intriguing.

So what about the practicalities of including shadows in your photographs? How do you arrive at the correct exposure, for instance? Well, I’ve never believed in making difficulties where there are none, and taking pictures of shadows is no exception. As a rough and ready guide, just remember that if you want your shadows to be darker, you should expose for the brighter areas in your picture. It’s as simple as that. But don’t overdo this or your pictures will be underexposed and have a lifeless appearance. The other thing to be aware of is that shadows can register as very high colour temperature – they appear blue – when they are cast by a bright sun in a clear blue sky. So you may want to try the ‘Cloudy’ White Balance (WB) setting to counteract this. But this will depend on the effect you are trying to achieve.

For those of you who are a bit nervous about taking pictures of people, photographing other people’s shadows can come as quite a relief. You will no longer need to point your camera directly at your subject, who is likely to remain quite unaware of what you are doing. Pictures that include the shadows of people – without actually showing the people themselves, encourage the viewer of the photograph to interpret a story or narrative into the image. They must ask themselves what the people are doing, what they might be saying or discussing – and that’s when a sense of mystery can be intoduced into your photographs (see photograph at top).

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