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The importance of shadows in portrait photography

The post The importance of shadows in portrait photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by John McIntire.

When you start learning how to illuminate your photography, you can easily fall into a pattern where you let your subjects shine with light from all angles. The results are often clear images without a trace of shadow everywhere. Sometimes that is exactly what the profession requires: clear, brightly lit images with very little contrast. However, erasing the shadows in your images can have a negative impact.

The difference between heavily exposed photos ' s with shadows can be huge.

Intentional and effective use of shadows in your images can help to create a natural contrast and depth, convey drama and emotion and provide you with powerful compositional elements in your photography.

This article discusses these reasons why it is not only important to preserve the shadows in your images, but to consider them primarily while you are still planning your images. There is also an overview of a simple exercise that you can do to help you better see shadows and how they affect your images, which you can use to improve your understanding of light.

Not just withheld

Clearly, low-key images rely heavily on shadows, but shadows are important in all photographic styles.

It is important to clarify one thing here. This concept does not only apply to low-key images where the vast majority of the space in the frame is dominated by shadow tones. Shadows are even as important for brightly lit images as they help to define the shape and characteristics of your subject.

Why shadows are important

Maintaining the shadows in your images can do many things for you, especially when it comes to designing images. Below are a few of these for you to consider.

Depth and contrast

Maintaining shadows in your images can give you a natural contrast and add depth to your images.

Contrast, in terms of this article, is the tonal difference between dark and light. This contrast is how we see things in three dimensions and it is exactly how you can create the appearance of three dimensions in your two-dimensional imaging. The point is, it's hard to do this without shadows. (It is also difficult to do without reflective highlights, but that is a different discussion for another day.)

For example, to illustrate the three-dimensional nature of a nose, you need a highlight that changes to midtones. The marking indicates the closest point of the nose to the light. Assuming the light is above your subject, shadows fall under your nose. This gives a visual indication that the nose is sticking out of the face. Without the shadows there will be little or no distinction between the nose and the rest of the subject's face. This results in a flat, disturbing image. Even if your viewers cannot figure out what they are looking at, they will still be aware that something seems to be wrong.

By ensuring that you have shadows in your images, you can get pleasant, natural-looking images with any kind of lighting.

Add drama and evoke mood

Shadows are a fantastic tool when you try to create images that evoke mood and emotion.

Generous use of shadow tones in your images is one of the fastest and most effective ways to create a sense of mood and helps you create images with bags of drama.

You can do this in various ways, including:

Backlight and short exposure

Short lighting is a great tool for placing shadows where they have the most impact.

By illuminating your subject from the rear, most of the foreground of your frame is shown as a shadow tone, with only certain aspects of your subjects displayed with highlights.

To control the intensity of your shadows, you can change the size and shape of your light source, change the distance between the light source and your subject, or fill the shadows with a secondary light source.

Lighting choice

Making a conscious lighting choice (such as the 2 ' x2 ' softbox used here) to emphasize your shadows is one of the easiest ways to control the shadows in your images.

If you use a small (light) light source close to your subject, you can use the faster light drop that decreases to introduce shadows into your images.

For an even better understanding of this, choose a few movies or television shows (especially dramas) and study the lighting choices during dramatic scenes with many dialogues. In many cases you will find that there was a conscious choice to highlight the actors in a way that emphasizes specific functions, while the majority of the rest of the actor is thrown into the shadows.

Compositional elements

Shadows are a great way to help compile your images and can help you draw attention to your point of interest.

Shadows can be used to achieve a wonderful effect when composing compositional devices in your images. Using darker tones to frame your subject, or to show the eye of your viewer what you want them to see, can help you create more dynamic and interesting images.

To fill

Shadows do not have to be dark. Even filled in with extra lights, you can still use shadows for contrast and depth.

When you talk about shadows, that doesn't mean you have to stick to ultra-dark tones with little or no visible details. By using fill lights, you can still illuminate every part of your image while maintaining the shadow tone. If you let your fill light illuminate two or three stops under your test light, you will still look like contrast in your images, but you will retain all the fine details that would be missing if you hadn't used the fill.

An exercise in shadows

To get a grip on this concept, try this simple exercise with many different topics.

First choose a subject. Any subject will do it, but you could start with something static.

Take a good look, critically, at what you have chosen for photography and start thinking about the lighting. But instead of thinking about the highlights, you only try to focus on where you want to place your shadows.

So choose a light source (a desk lamp works) and light your subject so that you have the desired effect.

If you want to continue doing this, you can further edit and manipulate your light so that the highlights behave in a way that compliments the shadows.

That is it

Although this is a simple concept, it can seem counterintuitive. When you approach enlightenment, it is of course logical to think of the highlights first; however, extra thinking about your shadows can take your light skills to a new level. Try the above exercise with a few different topics and evaluate if and how you can make shadows in your photography work for you.

The post The importance of shadows in portrait photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by John McIntire.

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