How to Get Amazing Images from Shadows

Photographing shadows is often overlooked as a creative subject for our photography, and we can understand why. Any photographer, or photographic professional, will tell you that photography is all about light. That’s true. But we see beauty in that little ugly duckling called shadows.

We’ve been involved in photography for almost half a century, and one thing has always amazed us; many folks don’t truly understand what a shadow is when viewed in a photograph. We’re not saying that people don’t know what a shadow is “period”. There probably isn’t a single one of us who didn’t stand on a playground when we were children and marvel at the late afternoon sun casting our long shadow across the pavement.

Playing Together by ozjimbob, on Flickr

But as it relates to the photographic image, a lot of folks seem confused about what a shadow really is.

Let’s Point Out What a Shadow Isn’t

Shooter by Jhong Dizon | Photography, on Flickr

This is not a shadow. This is a silhouette.

So What is the Difference?


  1. the dark shape and outline of someone or something visible against a lighter background, esp. in dim light


  1. a dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface.

We’re sure that many old pros from the photography world are scoffing at us right now. They’re probably thinking that everyone knows the difference between a shadow and a silhouette. But, believe it or not, many beginners in photography don’t know the difference.

So, let’s talk about the difference.

Silhouettes have a fixed shape that mimics the object blocking the light. Shadows are not fixed in shape. A shadow will change in shape, definition, and color based on the positioning, quality, and color of the light creating it. It will also change characteristics based on the object that it falls upon. This opens up room for a lot of creativity.

The Characteristics of Shadows

Every beginning photographer is taught about the qualities of light: soft light, hard light, broad light, spot light, etc. Shadows also exhibit similar characteristics.

A shadow can be deep in tone and have a hard defined edge.

It’s ‘cos you’re gone now but your heart still remains.. by Neal., on Flickr

Harsh direct light creates deep shadows with hard defined edges.

A shadow can also be broad, soft, and with a feathered almost imperceptible edge.

Winter Road by Pavel P., on Flickr

Not only does the quality of light affect shadows, the distance of the light source to the object casting the shadow will change it’s characteristics, as well as the distance of the object casting the shadow to the object the shadow falls upon. As you can see, working with shadows opens up an almost infinite window of opportunity.

A shadow can be twisted and manipulated by changing the shape of the object casting the shadow. A shadow can be almost translucent. A shadow can be colored! You can do a lot of cool things with a shadow.

The Common Use of Shadows

When photographers, (or all artists for that matter), think of modeling a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional medium, they think of highlights and shadows. It’s these two elements, which are created by light, that help us to see in three dimensions.

Where on Earth by mbowman64, on Flickr

This photograph is a perfect example of how highlights and shadows emphasize three dimensions. Picture this in your mind, if the photograph had been taken at noon, with the sun directly overhead, the sand dune would lose all of it’s three dimensional qualities.

What if We Use Shadows in an Uncommon Way?

How do we do that? We make the shadows- the subject of our photograph!

ninja cat by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr

This is a perfect example of the shadow becoming the subject. Sure, this is a picture of a cat, but it’s the distorted shadow of the cat that brings interest to what could have been an ordinary photograph!

which way? by jenny downing, on Flickr

This is a somewhat abstract, but very interesting, use of a shadow as subject matter.

Shadows Will Be Our Subject- Now What?

Let’s look at some ways that you can put shadows to work  in expressing yourself.

Dragon Shadow Puppet Scares Bear by Dan Zen, on Flickr

This photographer took the idea of using shadows, as subjects, to a whole new level. He actually created his shadows by making the objects that were going to cast the shadows. What a creative statement!  Does that spark some ideas?

Photography is about expressing yourself in an artistic medium. Applying that to shadows could mean hunting down interesting shadows that already exist. It could mean creating shadows that weren’t there. It could even mean you manipulating existing shadows to satisfy your creative vision!

Did you know that Shadows can be Colored?

When light is directed at a translucent object some light is blocked and some of the color spectrum passes through; this creates colored multi-tone shadows. An example of this would be a stained glass window. Here’s a cool idea. Collect different types of colored glass and use them to create colored shadows in a scene that you select. Here’s another cool point. If you create shadows of several different colors and intersect them, a new color will be formed where they overlap.

color shadows by martinhoward, on Flickr

Colored shadows are created by passing light through colored translucent objects, or by putting colored gels on the light sources that create the shadows. Just remember, if any white (full spectrum) light hits your colored shadow it will erase the color.

Shadows can Accentuate Details

Perhaps, you have a subject that  you’re looking for a way to direct the viewer’s eye to a certain detail. Why not create a shadow?

Shadows by Pablo Miranzo, on Flickr

There is no mistaking that the photographer wanted to direct the viewer to the young woman’s beautiful eyes.

A Prism of Shadows: Self-portrait in Front of A Brick Wall by DerrickT, on Flickr

This photographer used some carefully placed shadows to direct the eye, AND, create a mood.

Shadows can Convey Emotion

Free Daddy and His Little Shadow Girls at The Skate Park Creative Commons by Pink Sherbet Photography, on Flickr

This shadow photograph screams “Joy!” We don’t even have to see the children’s faces.

The Umquhile Shadow-Paraphernalia With Hands-on Ripening by DerrickT, on Flickr

The dense black shadows, and their placement around the eyes, emphasizes the feeling of sadness, or depression.

Shadows and the Abstract

The ability to stretch and distort shadows lends itself to interesting and beautiful abstract images.

Flickr contacts by kevin dooley, on Flickr

This curved shadow between two walls is a beautiful abstract form.

A New Perspective

Even when there are recognizable objects within a photograph, the use of strong shadows can provide a creative element that strengthens the composition.

Autumn Cycle by moriza, on Flickr

The repeated form of the bicycle- strengthens- what would have been a rather ordinary photograph.

We hope that you feel inspired to seek out shadows, create shadows, alter shadows, and highlight them in your future photographs!


Are Prime Lenses a Good Choice For You?

IMG_0173Before we get too far into this, we need to have a brief discussion of what a prime lens is. There are two basic types of lenses (yes, there are more, but they are far less common) that we use on a regular basis, prime lenses and zoom lenses. Zoom lenses have a variable focal length (e.g. 24-70mm or 70-200mm) so you can zoom in and out from the subject. A prime lens has a fixed focal length (e.g. 30mm, 50mm). Prime lenses tend to have wider apertures than regular zoom lenses. The downside to prime lenses is that if you need to zoom in or out to compose your scene you “zoom with your feet”. Deciding what you want is purely a personal decision and there is really no right or wrong. While wedding photographers typically shoot with zoom lenses to make it easier to adjust for specific scenes, there are also some that prefer prime lenses due to personal preference. Likewise, while most portrait photographers tend to shoot with primes, there are also some who tend to use zooms because of personal preference as well. Clearly, personal preference is a factor that plays into your decision-making. Having said that, there are also other considerations to take into account

Choosing a Prime Lens

IMG_937330mm 1/2000th f/2.8 ISO200

If you want a super fast lens or want that really shallow depth of field, a prime lens can be an excellent choice but picking one out from all the different sizes can be a little daunting. Deciding on a lens really depends on what you plan on shooting. Landscape shooters may want a wider field of view, jewelry shooters may want a longer focal length macro lens, and portrait shooters may want something closer to 50mm to avoid any distortion caused by shorter or longer focal lengths. If you are shooting people, I suggest something between 30mm and 70mm. The cheapest lens you can get is the Nikon or Canon ”Nifty-Fifty” 50mm f/1.8 which will run you about $99 or so. If you want to try out a prime lens without a large investment, these 50mm lenses offer a nice entry point.

If you are not using a full-frame camera body, then keep in mind your crop factor as it will increase the focal length. On APS-C sized sensor (Canon 30d, 40d, 50d, etc) you have to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6 so a 30mm lens becomes 48mm which is almost perfect in terms of distortion. The Sigma 30mm 1.4 EX DC HSM is an excellent choice for portrait and product photographers. This is probably one of my personal favorite lenses due to the size, the light weight, the lack of distortion, the super fast f/1.8 aperture and a cost around $450.

ring_detail-1105mm 1/500th f/2.8 ISO800

Moving up in the focal length, once we get out of the common portrait sizes we get into the longer lengths like 100mm. At this length, there is a compression added to the image that can make things look slimmer than normal so it actually can make for a good portrait lens even though many people may not think to use it as one. I like using this lens for small products such as jewelry or things that have a lot of detail.

With the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro lens not only gives you a nice long focal length but because it can focus at very short distances it can also create images that are life-sized, this is great for close-ups on things with lots of detail such as wedding ring shots.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into why you may want a prime versus a zoom lens and how to go about choosing the lens that is right for you. As you can see, I am not a purest when it comes to lenses and I have been shooting weddings with a Sigma 24-70 DG for several years. Whatever your brand, whatever your need, do your research and figure out which lenses shoot your shooting style, subject matter, and budget.

Culled from CameraDojo