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5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

Walking into a dimly lit room can be a photographer’s worse nightmare. Dark walls, low lighting, and weird shadows are enough to give even the calmest photographer a case of anxiety. Does this sound familiar? It did to me when I was first starting out and claimed to be a natural light photographer.

Because let’s face it, I did not know how to use my flash and more importantly did not know how to read light. Yes, I said that right. As a photographer, you not only see light but also need to learn the art of reading light – the type of light, the quality of light and also how the light will affect your final image.

The more I started to photograph people and places, the more I realized that but finding light among the shadows wasn’t really that scary or daunting.

How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

Master the shadows

Imagine for a moment the confidence you would feel if you can walk into any indoor lighting situation and think to yourself, “Yes, I got this”. And I don’t mean using your off-camera flash or strobes to light up the whole scene like the fourth of July fireworks display. I mean using only available light to create some magical photos.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love images taken in natural light as they feel really light, airy, and inviting to me. But shooting in a low-key style, embracing shadows to create some dramatic portraits is just as fun and exciting.

For the past few years, I have felt a little limited in my photography in terms of only photographing in bright, open, natural light conditions. Living in Chicago, our summers are quite short and fall is usually a mix of rain, thunderstorms and more rain. I learned very quickly that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and figure out how to photograph indoors and do it confidently and creatively.

A less I quickly learned is that shadows play such an important role in shaping light, setting the mood, rendering depth, and creating drama. In the absence of floor-to-ceiling multi-windowed, light-filled rooms to photograph in, embracing shadows may be the perfect solution for unleashing your creativity.

#1 Gear choices

Dark and Moody Lifestyle Portraits - How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

If you have a choice between prime and zoom lenses, choose the former. Primes are generally considered fast lenses with an aperture of f/1.8 or larger and allow what light there is to reach the camera’s sensor. My Canon 50mm f/1.2 is on my camera 80% of the time I am photographing indoors.

Make sure to also meter appropriately. I use spot metering most of the time and have my center spot set to the brightest area on my subject’s face/skin. This, in itself, will help to get a dramatically lit image. It will expose the highlights properly and allow the rest of the scene to have shadows for a range of tones.

Ensure you expose properly as well. If the capture is underexposed, attempting to correct it in post-processing only adds noise. In general, I tend to overexposure my photos by at least 1/3 stop no matter where I am photographing. I have found that this allows me to minimize noise and retain as much detail as possible in the shadows.

My White Balance is set to Auto. You can choose to set White Balance via the custom Kelvin function so that it can cut down processing time later. I find that being in Auto works really well in most cases and I am okay with minor adjustments in post-processing if required. Learn to embrace a bit of noise by increasing the ISO especially if the room is really dark.

Dark and Moody Lifestye Portraits in Shadows - How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

#2 Single light source

A single light source such as a small window or open door can work wonders for your image. When you are working with dark spaces and limited light, you’ll be surprised how little light you actually need.

If you have north-facing windows, they tend to bring in a softer and more directional light as opposed to east or west facing. Those tend to bring strong light depending on where the sun is in the sky at the time you are photographing.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

Backlight magic.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

The bride is facing the window and her profile is evenly lit. But the dark drapes behind her render the background almost black – I quite love the drama of light and dark happening in this photo – achieved by just placing the subject in a specific spot.

#3 Direction and quality of light

Both the direction and the quality of light play significant roles in the mood of an image. So understanding the variety, nature, and use of each will help you make informed decisions about how to achieve your end goal.

Hard, focused light tends to amp up the overall drama of the image, emphasizing texture and detail, and producing contrasty shadows with sharp, defined edges. Soft, diffused light gives shadows soft, feathered edges that recede gently (dither away), making it flattering and versatile for human subjects for the way it minimizes texture and detail (i.e., flaws).

The angle and direction of the light you choose depend on your shooting style and your intent for the image or session. Typically, I do not position the subject facing the light source because it gives a flat, one-dimensional look to the subject’s features. I prefer lighting my subjects from the side for the depth and dimension the shadows give the subject’s features and the rest of the frame.

Backlighting the subject has its uses, particularly if your intent is to somewhat abstract the subject to get an airy, dreamlike feel.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

On the left, the bride is facing the window straight on, so the light on her face is even and soft. On the right, the bride is facing the window but at a 45-degree angle. So her portrait is a mix of more dramatic light as well as darker shadows.

#4 Mathematics in photography

The mathematical law of the Inverse Square describes how the illumination from a light source diminishes over distances.

Imagine the beam of a spotlight as it widens and grows dimmer in the distance. Now center a subject in the beam close to spotlight itself and the light will be harsh. But if you move the subject in a straight line to stand about 6 feet from the light, how much less light is hitting the subject them? With the distance doubled, the light hitting the subject is diminished by three quarters.

In a real-world context, let’s say you’ve got a background to work with and maybe a surface to bounce light into the scene. Plus all kinds of diffusers and filters to modify the light source, and a choice of where to place the subject in relation to the background and the light source as well as placing yourself and the camera.

Generally, you can add drama to the image by positioning your subject close to the light source and away from the background. The light will illuminate the subject and everything behind her will dwindle into shadow. That’s a quick and easy way to create a dark background in-camera. Conversely, placing the subject further from the light source and closer to the background will create a more evenly lit scene with a more gradual shift between light and shadow (the background will be lighter as well).

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

On the left, the bride is farther away from the light source and hence she is more in the shadows as compared to the image on the right where she is facing the window light and is closer to the light source. So more of her face is being illuminated with the light coming from the window.

#5 Modify or mold your light source

If you find yourself with an over-abundance of natural/available light, using modifiers is an easy way to control the amount and intensity of the lighting on your subject.

Sheer curtains and blinds can be used to reduce or diffuse light, making it softer and subtler. You can decrease the size of the light source to increase shadows and increase drama with the use of blackout curtains or by partially shutting doors. Remember, the more light you let in, the less intense the shadows.

I hope these examples motivate you to look differently at shadows. There are no photography monsters hiding in them! They are, in fact, quite useful in adding some drama and interest in your photographs.

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Karthika Gupta
Karthika Gupta

is a culture, people and travel photographer, based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural, and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course, a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.

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