Meeting Photo Challenges
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Creating Better Photographics
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Light & Exposure
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Choosing & Using Lenses
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Seeing & Photographing Shadows: Using A Key Visual Element
Shadows are an integral part of light, and that means they are an integral part of photography. Everything casts a shadow, however subtle it may be, in virtually all types of lighting conditions. Even a small insect casts a shadow in diffused light. For example, look at the shadows under the legs of the cicada (#1). This was taken with diffused window light.
Being aware of shadows allows you to incorporate them into your work in artistic ways when they are attractive, complementary or perhaps dramatic. I consider the landscape in Namibia (#2) dramatic while the shadow of the palm tree in the Dominican Republic (#3) complements the scene. In both of these images, I included the shadows because they contributed to the graphic design of the photograph.
Paying attention to shadows also means you can avoid photographic situations that are unattractive and unflattering to the subject. The woman tending cattle in an 1855 pioneer settlement recreation in Missouri (#4) was taken when the sun was high in the sky. Look at the shadows on her face and on the cattle. This is what you want to avoid. Yes, fill flash can open up the shadows, and yes, you can work on images like this in post-processing (as I did) to restore detail back into the dark shadows, but the pictures will never be truly successful. They will never fall into the category of fine art.
The portrait of a warrior of the Angami tribe in Nagaland, India (#5) also has a problematic pattern of light and dark on his face. The horizontal nose shadow isn’t good. The sun was too low in the sky and I didn’t take the time to ask him to angle his head differently. The nose shadow should fall across the corner of his mouth (see below: Rembrandt light).
One of the characteristics of sunrise and sunset lighting is that it skims the surface of the land, thereby creating dramatic texture. The Navajo sandstone pictured in (#7) is an example. The reason the surface of the rock looks like a work of art is largely because of the angle of the light. The golden color is beautiful, but if the sun had been high in the sky this wonderful texture would essentially disappear. Similarly, the texture of the cracked desert floor in Death Valley (#8) is pronounced and helps make the image dynamic.
Can shadows seen during the middle of the day in bright sunlight create dynamic shadows that, in turn, introduce texture to a picture? The answer is yes, but this happens usually when the subject is vertical. In essence, the sun is affecting the scene as if it were coming from the side. You can see what I mean in the wall called Organ Pipes in the Namib Desert of Namibia (#9). Look at the dynamic role the shadows in this picture play. Nearby, I photographed an ancient petroglyph (#10) and a sun high in the sky provided the texture on the rock to make the giraffe stand out, and the rock itself has a wonderful surface made visible by the fact that the light was skimming the rock face and making every minute particle cast a shadow.
The point is you should avoid patchy lighting at all costs. If the sun is weak because it’s diffused by a hazy sky and/or it’s close to the horizon, then patchy lighting isn’t terrible. The model I photographed in Seoul, Korea is an example (#14). I don’t like the pattern of light on the architecture because our eye seeks out those hotspots, but this image isn’t nearly as awful as the forest images.
Shadows And Faces
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