For this blog, I have set up a Readers’ Requests Page for anyone to comment requests for posts, topics, changes or additions they’d like to see here on Shooter Files. I’m also starting a Reader’s Requests post series from these suggestions. If I write a post from your suggestion, I’ll credit you and include any link of your choice in the post as a thank you.
This Readers’ Requests Series post comes thanks to Sajid Shaikh:
Sajid Shaikh’s Request: Can you share some ideas on how to work with shadow in street photography?
Sajid Shaikh’s Link: instagram.com/shaikh.sajid92
*And before reading, I always emphasize there is no magic formula for photography. There is no formula at all. So I don’t want this requests series to read like that, which is why I was hesitant with tip requests in the past. There are ways to help you improve and see, though, so hopefully these can help others for that reason.
7 Tips on Capturing Shadow in Street Photography
Capturing shadow is a popular aesthetic in street photography, maybe now more than ever. For some photographers, the use of light and shadow has such a strong presence in their work that it becomes their known style. Other photographers don’t make it the whole aesthetic, but capture shadow as a way to add interest, mood and effect to a scene.
From small details to dramatic effects, there’s a variety of ways shadow can be captured and included in a photo. Shadow is found everywhere, but not all shadow is the same and there are ways you can effect how it looks when photographed. How do you want shadow to effect what you photograph? There are no rules in photography, but here are some tips that might be able to help improve your photos if you’re trying to focus on capturing shadow.
1. Don’t be afraid of the dark
If you want the shadows to become a strong focus of the photo, exposing for them will take away from their effect. I’d recommend shooting manually and exposing for the highlights instead to really bring out the contrast. If you expose for the shadows, not only will they not stand out, but the rest of the scene will likely be over exposed. If you shoot auto, it well expose for the whole scene, which will still expose for the shadows some. But if you expose for the highlights, the elements in the light will be exposed perfectly, while the shadows will be a nice contrasty black.
This of course is in cases where you have a decent amount of light creating the contrast between light and shadow. Many photographers feel a need to expose for the whole scene so every detail can be seen. The extreme of this would be seen in the popularity of HDR. The viewer doesn’t need to see every detail, though. Sometimes the details in the shadows aren’t important, sometimes the added mystery of shadow can create interest and if you’re wanting to capture shadows in your photography, exposing for the highlights can bring this effect to life.
2. What time is it and how do you want to use it?
The time of the day effects shadow as much as anything, and in different ways. As the angle of the sun changes, so do the shadows. The lower the sun, the longer the shadows will be, making it easier to play with them in a frame. The contrast and harshness of the light and shadow will be at its greatest in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead. This is usually a time to avoid in general for photography, but especially for shadows. Once the sun is closer to the horizon, you’ll get more pleasing, softer light, along with strong shadows. If you want to work in shadows against a wall or other elements, the lower angle of the sun works perfect for this. The same goes for using background shadow to help subjects in the light really stand out by being fully lit up.
You should also decide how you want to use the shadows, though. Do you want the effect to be subtle or more dramatic? If you do want harsh shadows, then shooting in the middle of the day might actually appeal to you. If you want softer light with the shadow or extra long shadows, then you want to shoot closer to the sunrise or sunset. Personally, if the skies are clear, I prefer the last 2 hours before sunset.
Also, if you’re familiar with the area you want to shoot in, you’ll know the direction the light hits depending on the time of the day. When is the sun facing the scene/background and when is it backlit? Or when is it hitting at a certain angle in-between. If backlit, the shadow will fall towards you, which also it means you might have to deal with lens flare directed from the sun. The time of the day is as important as anything when it comes to shadow.
3. Be Creative. Use shadows in uncommon ways & create a new perspective
Shadows don’t only have to be a black background or a subject’s matching figure on a wall. They can be used to create a new perspective, add geometry, bring mystery, provide juxtaposition, make illusions and more. An example would be a person dressed in black in the light with a background of shadow blending into the subject, creating an illusion from the elements that aren’t black.
Another example would be a shape or line of shadow connecting with an element in the scene to form one. There’s an endless number of ways, these are just to give you an idea of what I mean, while it’s up to you to be creative and find you’re own way to use shadow.
And remember, shadows can be different tones and even be in color. If you want the shadow to be more than black darkness, you can have slight exposure for them to bring out some detail, while still having the presence of shadow. You can also find colored light in a scene and the shadow they cast will possess tones of some of the color if exposed for correctly. It can be fun seeing shadow and light in new, less basic ways.
4. Shadows and Silhouettes
Technically, Shadows and Silhouettes are two different things, but they can work together seamlessly. And beautifully. I’m sure you already know, but shadows are created separately from another subject blocking the light, while silhouettes are the subject blocked from the light, creating what looks similar to a black shadow when in front of a lit background. There are more possibilities working with shadow, but they both can reveal form and add another subject in similar ways, while keeping some mystery or abstract quality.
For silhouettes to look like shadows, you need to make sure you have strong light behind them, while they are completely blocked from the light. Like a building casting a shadow just past the subject, but not against the background. One strength of silhouettes can be in how defined they can look. While shadows can be distorted with soft edges depending on the angle of the light, subject and surface, silhouettes can show a perfect image of the subject cast in black shadow because it actually is the subject. Using them together, you can mix different forms of subjects, all in black shadow, creating some interesting effects.
You could look for a subject in light next to a silhouette that at first looks like their shadow, but with a different form. Or if you’re lucky, capture a mixture of silhouettes, shadows and subjects in the light to create a complex and interesting scene. Or maybe you even want the silhouette to show partial detail of the subject. There’s many ways to capture interest through shadow and silhouettes.
5. Add Contrast, Details, and Texture
Shadow can also be used with an artistic vision, like a paintbrush using light and shadow to capture a mixture of tones, texture, contrast and other details. A photographer like Gueorgui Pinkhassov is a master of this. He’s not looking to just have a solid shadow or two as subjects, he’s looking for shadow and light to play together in the whole scene.
Shadows can reveal texture, especially if the sun is at a low angle, casting shadows within the texture and creating contrast. The grittiness of old architecture, the rockiness of the ground, or even the wrinkles in a person’s face.
The contrasts created by shadows can be subtle and other times they can be more dramatic. A blend of shadow across the scene can reveal some aspects, while bringing mystery to others, creating a more abstract quality to the photo. Different textures and contrasts can be added through light and shadow to emphasize this effect even more. Shadows can add depth and shape to the scene too.
Sometimes it also helps to look at a scene with an abstract eye, not only focused on what is happening. Then you can see what the mix of light, shadow, tones, and colors are doing to what you see.
6. Capture Drama, Mood and Emotion
In addition to creating an artistic or abstract scene, shadow can also be used to bring drama, mood and emotion to a photo. This can be captured in similar ways as contrast, texture, and details.
Contrast can create drama. People’s attention are drawn to the contrast, which can emphasize what they’re looking at. This in turn dramatizes and amplifies what we see. Think of a scary movie or a towering building. Without the shadow and contrast, the effects wouldn’t be as dramatic.
In addition to grabbing attention, shadow can also affect mood. With shadow covering parts of the scene in different ways, the mood and emotion can form in a variety of ways. Clouds casting partial shadows over a scene, strong contrasts of bright light and dark shadow mixed together, or a dimly lit room of shadow with one light shining on a man, these are all creating mood through the use of shadow and light.
7. Direct Attention & Bring Focus
Shadow can be used to direct attention and bring focus in a number of ways.
It can be a focal point, frame a focal point or lead the eyes to a focal point. If the subject is exposed, the shadow behind or around it brings even more attention to it. Shadows can also be shapes or lines that can be captured in a way that might point to a subject or frame it. Sometimes even having a shadow partially cover a subject can bring attention to it or direct focus to a specific part of the subject, like their eye.
Shadow can also help the viewer focus on certain elements by removing distractions or detail from the unimportant parts of the scene. There are many possibilities where shadows can direct the viewer’s attention and strengthen the center of interest in a photo. So try to notice different types of geometry and ways shadows involve themselves into your surroundings. Sometimes they can bring focus to a subject just as much, or more, as the subject does itself.
Another thank you to Sajid Shaikh for his request on shadows. Hopefully, some of these tips can help you improve how you capture and use shadows, or expand your possibilities when it comes to street photography. Again, there are no rules or magic formula to photography, but there are ways to help capture what you want to see, or see things you never saw before. Including shadow is just another way to do it.