In these days of HDR and shadow sliders, photography is obsessed with exposing everything in the scene. People want every bit of the photo to be lit up nice and bright. No shadows allowed. Unfortunately, sometimes this actually ruins the photo.
How can exposing for everything in the picture do more harm than good?
- It can take the authentic mood out of the picture
- It can remove all emphasis on the important elements of the scene
- It can ignore how light and shadow could have been used to strengthen the photo
- It can add unwanted distraction
- It can convert the scene into just another boring photo for the internet
When it comes to light, sometimes less is more.
Learning how to use light is one of the most important aspects of photography. Once you learn the different ways to work light, it opens up so much more possibility in your photography.
When composing a scene you are deciding what elements you want in the frame and what elements you don’t. That doesn’t mean every bit of space in the frame will be important, though. It doesn’t have to be either.
Using light to bring focus to the subjects is the more obvious part, but using lack of light for the unimportant space can be just as effective.
You can use light to show what you want to show and hide what you don’t. You don’t need to capture everything in full exposure, just like you don’t need to include everything on the street into the frame.
Learn from the Masters: 5 Examples
I’m a visual learner so looking at work from the greats is the best way for me to really see things in photography.
Alex Webb is an amazing Street Photographer who loves using bright colors and light to highlight elements, while leaving unimportant parts in shadows of complete darkness at times.
Now imagine if this photo had everything exposed without shadows? It probably wouldn’t even be very interesting anymore. But with only the highlights exposed for, we get a much more complex and interesting picture. The ocean horizon filled windows in the back, the different colored shirts in the front, the people’s’ faces and the gesture of the man are all perfectly outlined by the black shadows.
This is the photograph that Webb chose for the cover of his book, The Suffering of Light. The use of light here gives much more power to the large eyes above, the face on the advertisement below and the child looking back at the camera. You see enough to capture interest, but what you can’t see in the shadows only adds more mystery to the photo.
This is one of my favorite photos from Webb. The men are barely lit at all, but it adds to the feeling of the photo. The saturated colors and the smoke look beautiful. Plus there’s just enough light that hits the side of the smoking man’s face to highlight his eye and cigarette for even more mood and intimacy.
Limiting light can be extremely effective in black and white photography too. We’ll look at a couple of examples from the legend W. Eugene Smith.
Due to its age and how he shot this photo, it almost doesn’t look real. Look at how the darkness surrounds the two children, providing a frame for them as they walk out into the bright forest. If everything was exposed for, would it have the same effect or even the same story?
Having most of the image in black darkness gives more emphasis on the man’s face. There’s just enough light to silhouette his expression and the smoking cigarette in his mouth. More exposure would only lose the feeling that this photo gives.
Search for the Shadows
So the next time you go out shooting the streets and looking for light, try to search for the shadows too. See if you can use shadows just as much as you use the light.
You can be very subtle with your use of shadows, just to add a little tone and mood.
Or you can go extreme and work it so the shadows and contrast become a large part of the picture.
Either way, not being held to the idea that your photos need to be exposed everywhere gives you freedom to improve your photography even more.
Shadow doesn’t have to be the enemy of light. Sometimes they can work together very nicely.
How do you feel about exposing for every detail in photography? Do you like to use shadows to your advantage at times? Tell me about it in the comments below!