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Seeing & Photographing Shadows: Using A Key Visual Element:
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A self-portrait in black and white I made in 1971 (#17) was done with sidelighting. I placed the light—in this case a simple photoflood that consisted of nothing more than a $10 hardware store reflector and a light bulb—at a 90° angle to the lens axis. Notice how the light divides my face, and also notice that the shadow is solid black. I purposely wanted this kind of drama.

#17

I used off-camera flash in photographing a model in Venice (#18) and in this case I balanced the artificial light with the ambient light of dawn. That enabled me to see detail in the shadow side of the face. Using a gold reflector as a fill light, I also used sidelighting to make a portrait of a young woman in India (#19). We can see all the detail in her face perfectly, and the division between light and shadow is subtle. Compare this image with my self-portrait and you see the range of effects possible with sidelight.

#18

#19

Another approach to using sidelight is to have the subject turn away from the camera, as I did in (#20). The light source in this case is a window, and from the camera’s point of view the light is coming from the side. As such, it created texture and dimension in this model’s face.

#20

Rembrandt light is a term that is derived from the type of illumination the famous Renaissance artist used over and over again in his paintings. Carefully study the light on the woman’s face in (#21) a painting Rembrandt made in 1632. The shadow from the nose crosses the corner of the mouth, and this creates an inverted triangle of light on the cheek opposite the light source. The way you duplicate this is to place the artificial light source at a 45° angle to the lens axis, and at the same time it should be about 3-4 feet away from the subject and 3 feet above the subject’s face, figure A. I used the same type of light in photographing a model (#22) but my lighting was more contrasty than Rembrandt’s. Nevertheless, notice how the nose shadow crosses the corner of the young lady’s mouth and how the inverted triangle of light on her cheek is on the opposite side of her face from the light source.

#21

#22

Figure A

Outdoors, you don’t place the light. The sun moves across the sky in a predictable path, and the way photographers use it is to orient a model in relation to the sun. For example, when I photographed a woman in Gujarat, India (#23) I asked her through my interpreter to angle her face in such a way that I was able to capture Rembrandt lighting from the mid-morning sun.

#23

Butterfly lighting was popular in the 40’s and 50’s for dramatic portraits of movie stars. It is characterized by a shadow under the nose that resembles a butterfly (#24). To create this kind of shadow, the light must be positioned above the subject’s head and forward slightly so the nose shadow forms just above the lips. If you don’t want the shadow to be so harsh and devoid of detail, a reflector fill will bounce light into the face and open up the shadows.

#24

Trans-Illumination
When light comes through a translucent material such as a leaf, thin fabric, a sheet of paper, etc. the effect is called trans-illumination. It’s a stunning type of light, and the potential for capturing unique shadows is significant. The shadows on the rigging on the tall ship (#25) is an example. In this instance the shadows could only occur with a low angled sun because the sails were vertical. In the photo of the frog on a leaf (#26) I used flash to create the brilliant backlighting so the silhouette of the amphibian was defined dramatically. Because I placed the light close to the leaf, this gave me the ability to use f/32 to make sure the leaf was sharp edge to edge.

#25

#26

This kind of light can be extremely effective in photographing models wearing sheer clothing. I used this kind of light when I photographed a model in Death Valley, California (#27). Just after sunrise, I positioned myself so the sun was directly behind the subject. The light not only created a shadow of her body, but the shadows on the sand extended toward the camera to create strong leading lines that bring our eye right to the model.

#27

Shadows As Art
Many images are embellished and dramatized when bold and beautiful shadows are incorporated into an image. The shadows can elevate a picture to fine art. Landscape photographers are drawn to shoot sand dunes simply because of the play of light and shadow on the stunning contours of the sand as you can see in (#28). Namibia is famous because it has the largest sand dunes in the world, and they happen to be orange. The juxtaposition of color—orange and blue—is visually arresting, and the dramatic shadows seen at sunrise and sunset are amazing.

#28

I was in the right place at the right time to photograph a paraglider in front of one of the dunes at sunset (#29). The shadow on the huge dune was beautiful, and it made an incredible backdrop. As the pilot steered his way down, I waited until he was in front of the shadow to shoot. The sunlight on the canopy made it stand out against the darker background.

(Left): #29 (Right): 30

Shooting dunes from the air is an exciting proposition, too. I hired a small plane with the provision that they take the door off for an unobstructed view. I asked my pilot to veer away from dunes that had vegetation because I wanted the pristine look of light and shadow only. The artistry of multiple S-curves and C-curves in the sand was amazing (#30).

Sometimes I like to incorporate my own shadow as an interesting element as I did at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado (#31). Shadows of other types of subjects can add to the artistry of an image like the sea lion in the Galapagos Islands (#32) and the pronounced shadow of the yucca at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico (#33). In all landscape work, when the sun is low in the sky, shadows can play a large role in your compositions. The arch in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California (#34) that I took at sunrise makes this point.

#31

#32

#33

#34

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