As much as I love shadows in photography, there’s a certain shadow that most of the time I really don’t want in my photos. It’s ugly, harsh shadows behind a subject on a backdrop or wall. But before we get into how to avoid shadows in indoor photography, let’s talk shadows in a totally different context. No camera involved, because sometimes just picking up a camera makes our brains stop working.
We’ve all entertained ourselves and/or children with shadow puppets. The only ones I know how to do are the rabbit and the bird. If you don’t know what I mean by shadow puppets, it’s when you shine a light towards the wall and then put your hands in front of the light to cast a shadow on the wall and contort your hands so they cast animal shaped shadows.
Well, everything that you do to create those shadow puppets is the opposite of what you need to do to avoid shadows in indoor photography on walls and backdrops. So, bear that in mind as we go through the five solutions:
- Distance between subject and backdrop or wall
- How far the light is from the subject (light size relative to subject)
- Angle of the light
- Add an additional light behind subject
- Photograph against a dark background
But a few important points before we go further, because there’s a lot of wrong information out there…
- It has nothing to do with whether you shoot in manual mode, shutter priority mode, aperture priority mode etc.
- Or what camera settings you use – a higher ISO or slower shutter speed or wider aperture – will have no impact on reducing shadows.
- Neither does it have anything to do with whether you use artificial light (either flash or constant light) or ambient light (whether natural light or the room lights).
Avoiding shadows in portrait photography is all about how you use the light that you have, subject placement and light placement.
1. Distance between subject and backdrop or wall
This is the best way to avoid shadows hitting the wall or backdrop behind your subject.
Get your subject to stand 5 to 6 feet away from the wall. If they’re a child, the distance can be less, because their shadow will be shorter.
If they stand far enough away, their shadow won’t reach the background or wall. Problem solved.
At first it can be difficult to know just how far they need to be, so if using strobes, switch on the modelling light so that you can see the shadow. If using constant light of some sort – either LED, room light or natural light – you’ll be able to see their shadow easily. So just move them away from the background until the unwanted shadows are out of shot.
Of course if you have limited space, it can present a challenge, but keep reading to find other ways to reduce background shadows in photos.
2. How far the light is from the subject (light size relative to subject)
We could get really technical and start talking about the inverse square law, but the really simple explanation is that the closer the light is to the subject, the faster the fall off of light will be.
In other words, when your light is close to the subject the background will be darker than if your light was further away.
Your camera doesn’t see as well as your eyes do. This is because of the dynamic range of your camera. Some cameras have a greater dynamic range than others, but no camera is as good as our eyes. Which is why we see light differently.
Also, the closer the light is to the subject, and therefore the bigger its relative size to the subject, the softer the light will be. Soft light leads to soft shadows.
A common mistake that new photographers make is to use the on camera flash without paying attention to what’s behind the subject. The built in camera flash is a very small light source, so will produce hard light and therefore hard shadows.
If at all possible avoid using the built in flash on your camera to light your subject. Either avoid flash altogether with a slower shutter speed, wider aperture and higher ISO or use a speedlight fitted to the camera hotshoe. Yes, I just contradicted what I said earlier, but this just avoids using flash and the possible dark shadows. And you run the risk of motion blur in low light situations from either camera shake or subject movement. Rather learn how to eliminate shadows with lighting.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on studio lights to learn flash photography. Speedlights are cheap, extremely portable and very versatile. You can use speedlights for off camera flash. Even on camera they can be swivelled so that you can bounce the light off of a wall, ceiling or reflector. This will produce a softer light. It also changes the angle of light, which changes where the shadow falls.
Which leads to the next point on how to avoid shadows in indoor photography…
3. Angle of the light to avoid shadows indoors
Think about the impact the height of the sun has on the length of your shadow at different times of the day. One of the things I love about the end of the day when the sun is low in the sky and starting to set is the long, long shadows.
By contrast, at midday your shadow is really short, even directly beneath you.
And if we go back to making shadow puppets on a wall, think about where you’d place the light. Shining directly at the wall, right? Not high up and pointing down at your hands, because then the shadow puppet would be on the floor, or the bottom of the wall.
Now let’s relate this to lighting a subject near a wall indoors (or outdoors on a sunny day for that matter).
A simple rule of thumb for attractive portrait lighting is to place the light a foot higher than the subject angled down at 45 degrees, for flattering shadows on the subject’s face. The other advantage of this is that by lifting the light, it’s less likely to shine onto the wall or backdrop behind your subject. So you avoid unwanted shadows in photos.
Now consider where the light is. If the light is in front of the subject (like with butterfly lighting for portraits) their shadow will fall behind them. If they’re close to a wall and you want to eliminate shadow in the photo, move the light to the side of the subject, so their shadow falls sideways and not onto the wall (like with Rembrandt lighting for portraits).
4. Add a light behind the subject to avoid shadows in indoor photos
This is a bit more advanced as it involves additional lights rather than using a single light source.
One additional light
Obliterate the shadow with one additional light placed directly behind the subject shining onto the wall.
Two additional lights
For a high key image with a blown out white background with no shadows…
- Position your subjecting in front of a white paper background or white wall (preferably 5 feet away).
- Then place one light to the left behind the subject pointing at the wall.
- Do the same on the left behind your subject.
- Make sure these background lights have the same power settings and are equally far from the wall to ensure an even spread of light.
5. Use a dark background to avoid shadows
If none of the above solutions work, you could go to the other extreme and photograph against a dark background so that shadows won’t be visible. Or even make the background black with lighting.
It might seem obvious, but sometimes we overlook the simplest solutions.
Summary of eliminating shadows in photos
You could keep adding lights (like a fill light to reduce shadows), but if you haven’t got the basics right, no matter how much light you add, you won’t eliminate background shadows in photos. So here’s a quick recap of how to avoid shadows in indoor photography:
- Place subject at least 5 feet from the background
- Place the main source of light close to the subject
- Angle the light 45 degrees down towards the subject
- Place the light to the side of the subject
- Photograph against a dark background
Further indoor photography tips: Top tips for photographing with natural light indoors and minimal gear
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If you have any questions on how to avoid shadows in indoor photography, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have shown you how to eliminate shadows with lighting, share that too.