You can use shadow and contrast to create dramatic images. The key is to forget about shadow detail. You don’t need it. Shadows are meant to be dark and mysterious. This is good – it leaves something to the viewer’s imagination.
Utilize the dynamic range of your sensor. Expose for the highlights, and let the shadows fall where they will. If the light is strong enough, the shadows will contain very little detail.
Harsh light can make dramatic images
I took the following photo in Bolivia. The sun was sinking behind me, casting a strong shadow that had started to touch the underneath of the old car. The shadow fills the bottom third of the image. We don’t need detail in the shadow, although a little doesn’t hurt. Shoot in Raw format, and in most cases you’ll be able to pull some shadow detail out in post-processing, giving you a choice.
When I see a dramatic image like this, with strong shadows, my immediate instinct is to convert it to black and white. High contrast scenes look great in monochrome. There’s something about removing colour that emphasizes the depth of the shadows, and the drama of the composition. You can add impact by increasing contrast in Lightroom and emphasizing texture using the Clarity slider. Here’s my black and white conversion of the photo above.
Look for naturally contrasty scenes
I took the next photo indoors, in an old manor house that had been converted to a museum. The apples were lit by light coming through a window. The windows were small, so the interior of the room was naturally dark, which is why there is so little detail in the background. It’s a high contrast scene – the area lit by window light ,is much brighter than the rest of the scene.
Here’s the same image converted to black and white. Without colour, the emphasis is on the textures and shadows.
The following photo of an approaching storm uses also uses shadow and contrast. The mountains are backlit and silhouetted. The approaching storm clouds are dark and ominous. A brightly lit strip of sky fills the gap between the two dark areas. A silhouetted telegraph pole forms a natural focal point. The drama of the light has created a dramatic image.
There are lots of shadows in this seascape. But the ones that caught my eye were the silhouetted figures on the right. After I had set up the shot, two children walked across the beach, and climbed up on the rock. I used a long shutter speed (30 seconds) to blur the water, which also blurred the silhouetted children. I was fortunate because the figures add human interest and scale to the scene. They are a natural focal point that pulls the eye across the photo.
The final image is also one that uses shadow to create mystery and drama. I focused on the grass on the foreground, set a wide aperture, and let the sun go out of focus. I adjusted the white balance in Lightroom to emphasize the warmth of the setting sun. This image is different from the others in that the colour is an important part of the composition and it doesn’t work as well in black and white.
One of my aims with this article is to dispel the idea that it is essential to capture lots of shadow detail, and that if you fail to do so, it is some kind of technical shortcoming. Not so – let’s celebrate the fact that camera sensors don’t capture the full range of brightness that our eyes are capable of seeing. Let’s use the interplay of light and shadow to create interesting and dynamic compositions. Let’s create some mystery and leave gaps for the viewer’s imagination to fill in.
Do you use shadows in your images? Please share your images with lots of shadow and contrast in the comments below.
My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.