How to Use Shadow and Contrast to Create Dramatic Images


shadow and contrast

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.

shadow and contrast

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.

shadow and contrast

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.

shadow and contrast

Here’s the same image converted to black and white. Without colour, the emphasis is on the textures and shadows.

shadow and contrast


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.

shadow and contrast

The image is naturally monochromatic, and converts well to black and white.

shadow and contrast

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.

shadow and contrast

shadow and contrast

It also converted well to black and white.

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.

shadow and contrast


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.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Mike R

    Just before dawn over a ravine and creek

  • Niall

    quiet time down by the lake

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Andrew, I get what you are trying to say about the shadows not needing detail. Leaving out the detail encourages the viewer to imagine what might be there.
    But I’m in two minds about your use of Black & White. The title of your article says “… use shadow and contrast …” but in my opinion removing the colour in some of your examples actually reduces contrast (in the wider sense of the word.)
    The colour splash of the red car adds stark contrast to an otherwise uniformly-lit scene (apart from the foreground shadow.) The same can be said of the three green apples – yes, in the B&W image you are left with the texture to examine, but to my mind, you see more contrast in the green apples, and that highlights the texture.
    Your other examples, of the thunderstorm and Tapu te Ranga Island, do not need the colour so much, and indeed work well to illustrate you point about the shadows.
    I’ve attached one of my photos to show that the shadows do not always need detail.

  • SteppinRazor

    Coming and going

  • SteppinRazor

    Christmas greetings to you and your family Andrew!

    TITLE: coming and going
    NOTE: loss of shadow detail on the right adds mystery and keeps bouncing eyes back to the strange curve at left

  • SteppinRazor

    TITLE: coming and going
    NOTE: loss of shadow detail on the right adds mystery and keeps bouncing eyes back to the strange curve at left

    Christmas greetings to you and your family Andrew!


  • Nilanga Witanage

    Yes and sometimes we have to remove some shadow details as well. Some shadows downgrade the quality. Fining the best angle and time is the key. I am a travel photographer and I take lots of landscapes like these. Also I am totally agree with black & white one. Sometimes B & W helps to hide unwanted details and point the exact thing which you want to point out. I really like this dramatic concept.

  • Thanks, Merry Christmas to you as well. Nice photo too!

  • You’re right, there are a number of ways you can remove shadow detail in post-processing and it’s a viable way of adding a sense of mystery or drama to a photo.

  • Hi Bob, you’ve made an excellent point. When I wrote the article I was thinking about contrast in terms of brightness, but colour contrast is another thing entirely. Looked at from the point of view of colour contrast both the photo of the apples and the car work very well in colour. The discussion is interesting because it shows two approaches to the same scene. One photographer (like myself) looks at those scenes, sees the textures and thinks that would look great in black and white. Another may look at the colours and the way they contrast with the background and think that will look great in colour.

    Could be an interesting follow-up article…

  • Thanks for sharing Niall. Nice use of flash in one of the photos – a great way to create contrast by lighting part of the scene and letting the rest go dark.

  • Thanks for sharing Mike, looks like a beautiful place to take photos.

  • Anne

    Sunset near the Dutch coast.
    I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to convert an sunset picture to B&W, but somehow it seems to work well here.

  • anup vaswani

    I took this picture on the way frm kathmandu to pokhara….i love this image bcz it summarises a local festival tradition called Dashain…..

  • I liked how including our hiking shadows in this picture was a way to be in this landscape and tell the story of our experience.

  • KC

    Excellent article. My “thinking” is that if doesn’t work in black and white, it won’t work in color. That’s not a rule, just a mindset from my ancient monochrome film days. Monochrome teases the imagination. Does color add to or distract from the composition or subject? Is the composition about the colors of the subject or the lighting of the subject? People study photography, but lighting? That’s a different topic.

    I started in natural media so this term stuck with me: chiaroscuro. It is a
    technique that uses strong tonal
    contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms. You see it in renaissance oil paintings, but the technique/style can be applied to lighting in any media.

    We have a great “tool” with us most times: our smartphone camera. We can preview a scene on that screen in monochrome mode. I use it to check lighting for color work.

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