How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

Shadows in photos convey emotion and create atmosphere. To use shadows in photos photographers take advantage of the dynamic range of digital cameras. The best and worst thing about digital cameras is that they don’t see the world as well as our eyes, because we have a far greater dynamic range than our cameras. 

A photographer’s constant challenge is to capture the highlights without overexposing them, while also capturing the shadows without underexposing them.

But this is the best thing about digital photography too. Why not create something interesting, instead of trying to capture the world exactly as you see it? 

Side light creating high contrast image

Why not concentrate on using shadows in photos, instead of always working to eliminate them?

Even in the light and airy photo below soft shadows are present. They’re just not as obvious as the photo above.

light and airy with soft shadows in photos

I used a Profoto B1X to light my subject from camera right and fill in the shadows.

What is dynamic range in photography?

The dynamic range of a camera sensor is its ability to record both highlight and shadow detail. You might have heard of dynamic range being mentioned when comparing crop sensor cameras to full frame sensor cameras. 

Full frame cameras can record a higher dynamic range than crop sensor cameras. In other words, they are able to record more detail in both highlights and shadows. So they see the world more like our eyes do, but still nowhere near as good.

When using shadows in photography we take advantage of the dynamic range of a camera, or in other words, the fact that it doesn’t see light and dark as well as we do.

Defining form by using shadows in photos

When you use shadows in photos, you give form to subjects. They appear more three dimensional, because of the shadows and highlights.

Plus, the shadows make the subject more interesting, in my opinion.

Shadows in photography for form

For years now I’ve concentrated on maternity and boudoir photography, because I love shadows in photos and I feel both portrait genres are perfect for it. They’re both about form and emphasizing curves.

I’ve photographed both in a light and airy, low contrast, style, but it’s just not the same, for me, as a high contrast image with strong shadows and highlights. This is a low key photography style and the feeling is completely different. 

When deep shadows are a strong presence in an image, it becomes all about form.

Shadows in boudoir photography for mystery

An example of low key photography using deep shadows and strong highlights.

Emphasizing texture with shadows

The other day I took a photo of a white wall, because I loved the way the shadows were falling on it. Go figure.

There were no clouds around and the sun was hitting the wall at the perfect angle to bring out the texture of the brickwork. An added bonus was the shadow cast by the balcony railing and overhanging roof, which diagonally sliced through the image, creating dynamic lines.

Emphasizing texture with side lighting

Without the shadows it’s simply a plain, white, brick wall and not particularly interesting.

Which leads me to my next point…

Direction of light for good shadows in photos

How the light falls on your subject is key to using shadows in photography. In other words the direction the light is coming from, and how it falls on your subject. 

Front lighting isn’t used as a main light for creating shadows in photos, unless it’s placed high and angled down towards the subject in the butterfly lighting position. Of all the light directions you could use, front lighting creates the least amount of shadow.

Backlight on the other hand creates shadow on the camera side of the subject. Silhouettes are an extreme example.

The best light direction for a combination of highlights and shadows in photos is side light.

Using shadows for texture

Here, light filtering through a window to camera right skims across the cake and emphasizes the textures.

To show off the abs of a toned physique, for example, you need the light to skim across your subject’s muscles, not flood the area. So you want the light to hit your subject from above or from the side.

It’s just like with the wall I photographed, where texture was highlighted by light skimming across the surface and leaving pools of shadows in recesses.

How quality of light affects shadows

The quality of the light is also essential for great shadow photography. Quality of light refers to the light being hard or soft, not whether it’s good or bad.

  • Hard light creates hard, clearly defined shadows in photos. 
  • With soft light there’s a slower transition from light to dark, making the shadows softer.

Many natural light portrait photographers love overcast days, because there are no, or at least greatly reduced, shadows in photos. The soft light of overcast days is flattering on skin.

Whereas the hard light of bright sunshine can be very unflattering on (less than perfect) skin, especially when combined with a direction that’s not suitable.

To further soften shadows in portrait photography diffusers and reflectors are often used.

When using natural light outdoors, try to find open shade to position subjects to diffuse the hard light of direct sun. When there’s no shade around, position subjects with their backs to the sun, so that their faces aren’t in direct light, which avoids the high contrast of highlights and shadows. 

This of course means that their faces are in shadow, so you need fill light to fill in the shadows. You can either bounce light with a reflector to fill in the shadows, or you can add off camera flash lighting as fill light.

Studio photographers often use several layers of diffusion on lighting to soften the light and therefore the shadows.

If you photograph specifically for the shadows though, you embrace the shadows in photos and concentrate on using them creatively. For example, you can see this in:

  • Fashion photography
  • Fitness photography
  • Landscape photography
  • Street photography

Using tonal contrast to direct attention

Tonal contrast in photos is the difference between light and dark tones.

Because our eyes are naturally drawn to the lightest part of an image, you can direct your viewer straight to the focal point of an image if it’s lighter than the surrounding shadow. 

You could even use the shape of the light or dark area to lead to your focal point. Triangles in photos are particularly dynamic and useful shapes to use.

When you photograph with the intention of allowing the shadows to lose detail, so that you have deep shadows and well exposed highlights, you simplify the image. This helps to highlight the focal point by removing distractions.

As a result, what you do include becomes very important, because there’s less to occupy the eye.

Using light to convey form in photos

I love using split lighting for maternity photography to add drama and define shape with shadows. To keep the shadows deep I didn’t use any fill light.

Shadow photography

Why not just go all out and photograph shadows as an actual subject, instead of as the result of light falling on a subject!

Shadow photography is great, because:

  • Anything goes
  • You can photograph at any time of day, as long as there is light of some kind
  • Shadows are everywhere

Silhouette photography is a perfect example of shadow photography.

The genre best suited to shadow photography is street photography. If you’re shy about photographing people in street photography, I totally get it. I’m not that mad about photographing identifiable people without their consent.

So, if you like the idea of street photography, but are put off by the whole people thing, try concentrating on shadows instead. Let the people be accessories to the shadows.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Look for design elements that will cast interesting shadows
  • Keep an eye out for pools of light
  • Figure out the best time of day for your chosen location

Once you’ve decided on the location, you’ll need a suitably sunny day with good shadows (always a challenge here in the UK!).

  • Expose for the highlights so that your shadows are deep 
  • Frame your scene
  • Wait for a subject to pass through your frame to add interest
  • Or photograph the shadows as an abstract image

Shoot black and white to make the most of shadows

Black and white photography is ideally suited to using deep shadows in photos, because the lack of color strips away detail, which simplifies the image.

Shadows in black and white photography

Editing for deeper shadows in photos

To make the most of using shadows in black and white photography, here are a few black and white editing tips:

  • Increase contrast
  • Reduce the shadows
  • Reduce blacks

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Using shadows in photos – summary

  • Shadows are as important as light
  • When you’re out and about, keep an eye out for design elements that cast interesting shadows
  • Be aware of light direction for making the most of shadows in photos
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with light and shadow
  • It’s up to you to decide what a perfect exposure is. If you want to hide details in the shadows, go for it!

The next step, if you’re interested in portrait photography, is to learn about portrait lighting patterns so that you know how to create flattering shadows suited to your subject and the atmosphere you want to create.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about using shadows in photos, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my shadow photography tips have helped you to understand how to photograph shadows, share that too.

2 thoughts on “How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere”

  1. Hi Jane, thanks got your tips and pointers, you said you were from the ‘sunny south coast’ where would this be after all the rain we’ve had here in Kent?
    Always good to hear from you, Willow.


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