Play with shadows. Don’t just use darkness, but do something unexpected with shadows. Cast a pattern on your subject, create a beam of light, use shadows to create a compelling composition or background.
Inspiration and Tips:
I love using shadows in my work, they add depth, texture, patterns and intrigue. Some of my favorite photographers not only exercise a great control over light, but an incredible knowledge of how to use shadows for drama and interest in a scene.
Detailed patterns of shadows are usually cast by a hard light source — the sun, a bare speedlight, or other hard lighting modifier. Think of it this way. Have you ever walked down the beach or have seen photos where the palm tree fronds are cast crisply upon the sand? The hard light of the sun is responsible for this. These hard light sources (very contrasty) create a crisp edge to the shadows because the transition from shadow to highlight is very abrupt. This is exactly the ingredient needed if you want to get creative with your shadow usage.
This image, for example, was created when I took a bare head of a Profoto B1 and pointed it at my subject through the metal stairway outside of my studio in NYC. The hard light cast hard patterns and shadows onto my subject which is exactly what I was hoping to achieve.
One other element of casting shadows to keep in mind is that the closer the element creating the shadow is to the subject, the harder the shadow. In this shot above, notice how close she is to the side of the fence/stairs. Her proximity keeps the lines hard. If she were very far away from the pattern, the lines would be softer. This does NOT mean she needs to be closer to the light source. In fact, the contrary. The further the light source is from the subject, the harder the light (aka relative size). So the B1 is actually 12 feet away, but the fence/stairs are very close. Keep this in mind if you trying this technique on your own! Remember, you can use the sun (at the right time of day), a speedlight, or bare studio head!
Let’s take a look at how some other photographers use shadow to create impactful results!
By far one of my favorite photographers of all time is Herb Ritts. He had such a sense of light, shadow and timeless nature about his work. Although he is known as a fashion photographer, the images of his that I love really are in the fine art realm as they play with light, form and shadow. Here are two famous nudes he has created that reflect the type of shadow-play this challenge is all about!
Note: If you’d like to learn more about fine nude photography, I have a 3 hour fine art nude video series here you can check out.
In the portrait and wedding realm of photography, David Beckstead’s work is absolutely swimming in beautiful examples of creative shadow use. Whether photographing couples, men’s portraits, or brides, he often explores how shadows can create captivating interest in his imagery and dramatic (and memorable!) results.
Of course, you don’t just have to cast shadows in a traditional way, but you can also think outside the box. This striking image of Tilda Swinton by Dan Winters uses light, shadow and pattern to create an image that keeps me exploring the frame over and over again.
Last but not least is one of my favorite photographers, Chris Knight. Chris uses shadows to create interest by creating narrow pockets of light that create a more theatrical (and dramatic) result. At times his use of shadow is simply to control the eye and create mood, while other times the use of carefully placed shadows serves to create a central element of visual interest in his frame.
Artists for Inspiration:
To demonstrate this challenge, I wanted to keep it simple and elegant — simple gear and simple tools required. My solution would be a single bare studio head, far from my subject. The further the light is from my subject, the harder the light (relative size: the smaller the light is relative to my subject, the harder the light). Once I had created the hard light needed to cast the shadows, it was time to determine my shadows.
In this case I chose two small pieces of lace with intricate detail. I brought this lace as close to my subject as possible without getting into my frame and composition. To keep my crop nice and tight, I selected a Canon 5D IV paired with the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 lens. This allowed me to get in very close to my subject without getting the lace in the frame.
For this shot I tried varying the angle of the lace, the distance of the lace, and even the height/placement of the light. These adjustments changed the way the shadow patterns appeared on my beautiful subject. In the end, I played around with two versions — a lower key black and white (more dark tones) and a much brighter portrait image. Each one used fundamentally the same tools, but in the low key image I used the dark lace behind the subject for a dark background and processed the image for darker tonalities (heavier blacks, more contrast). For the higher key image I used the white wall and white lace behind the subject, while also processing to allow more detail in the shadow areas and brighter exposure.
The setup was simple, but created portraits that are a bit more creative with an elegant timelessness and artistic quality to them!
Shutter speed: 1/200 second
Focal Length: between 120-200mm
Join the Creativelive Photo Challenge
I’ve shared my resulting image, and now it is time to share yours! Each month I’ll personally be selecting winners to be featured by Creativelive. Be sure to enter as we’ll be giving away some amazing prizes including a Canon imagePROGRAF 1000 printer to one lucky grand prize winner!
If you’d like even more inspiration, check out my book “Creative 52” for more ideas to invigorate your photography portfolio! I can’t wait to see what you create! I hope I inspire you, because my photographic community is always inspiring me!
Used during this shoot