Five easy ways to learn about the light/shadow relationship

Practice blocks provide a great way to understand light/shadow relationship.

Practice blocks provide a great way to understand light/shadow relationship.
View large About the light/shadow relationship :: External link - opens new tab/page

Our first priority is light – second is shadow.

The relationship between them is one of the great pillars of photography. Learning about them is essential. The key to understanding the use of light is seeing the effect of shadow. In this article I am offering some ways to learn about the light/shadow relationship. If you have not already done so I recommend you read Three little known facts about shadows External link - opens new tab/page first.

The light/shadow relationship – a transition

When looking for a scene the right light and shadows can make or break a shot. We are looking at the light/shadow relationship so we can convey the right message to the viewer. Things with harsh and sharp shadow-lines tend to indicate hard, masculine, tight, dark, angular, tough, solid, artificial, technical. Things with soft shadow-lines showing gradual light-to-dark change are the opposite. They tend to be gentle, mild mannered, lighter, soft, rounded, meek, curved, natural and feminine in appearance. Using the wrong light sends conflicting messages to the viewer. The right light will help your message. The defining aspect of this relationship is the transition from light to dark. The shades between light and shadow are the definition of form. “Form” being the three dimensional shapes we see. The harsh sharp shadows of hard light are great for angular forms. The soft rounded and gradual shadows of a softer light are great for showing rounded three dimensional forms – like faces, eggs and balls.

Creating the right light

Creating light of the right sort is the quickest way to understanding the different types of light and the shadows they create. So, we are looking to bring out the transitional light/shadow relationship through the use of different types of light. This will help us define form in our images and bring out the 3D feel that makes pictures appear to have depth.

You need to be able to create two types of light for these experiments. Hard light – created with an intense beam from a relatively small light source. A torch like this one is excellent for this purpose…

The ‘Lenser’ LED Torches

The ‘Lenser’ LED range of torches External link - opens new tab/page is available on Amazon. I personally recommend the excellent LED Lenser 8407 P7 (Black) External link - opens new tab/page torch (advert – left). It is excellent for all types of photography. At night you want a rugged and powerful torch for safety, lighting and to prevent losing equipment. Lenser also sell a coloured filter set for it making this torch great for light painting External link - opens new tab/page too. It’s the top seller (5 star) in the range. Experience has shown it to be an exceptional piece of technology.

You also need soft light – usually generated from a large light source like a window, softbox or photographic umbrella.

Make sure you are using only one light source for your tests. Multiple lights confuse the shadows. The hard and soft lights are best used at the same intensity so you can compare results between them later. If you have one, an off-camera flash with the appropriate modifiers would do the same work. Use a honeycomb or snoot to get the tight beam of a hard light. Use a diffuser or bounce the light off reflectors or walls to create a soft light.

For your first experiments with soft and hard light try out your different light sources. Place a simple object of your choice on a table. For the subject see a small vase, a simple ornament, a small box or something similar. Take a few photographs with both hard and soft light. Then open them on your computer and compare them. What you are looking for is the quality of the shadow. How intense is it – light or dark. How quickly does the light change from light to dark. Is it an abrupt, sharp change? Or, is it a slow, gradual transition? Study your shots to see which you prefer. The light/shadow relationship is best shown in gradual steps. So your shots should show very hard light right through to very soft light.

Experimenting with curves

The use of curved subjects is going to create gradual transitions of light anyway. But curves can also have quite hard shadow-lines if the light is also hard. Using something rounded will show the point. A small ball, an egg or something similar are great for testing the hard or soft light effects. I have several wooden eggs for this purpose. They make test subjects for thinking through individual or group portrait shots. They help in planning shoots and lighting set-ups. They are a very cheap way of making your mistakes before the shoot! Give them a try.

Using a rounded subject, try your hard and soft tests again. This time take shots from at least eight light-positions in a circle round your egg. You must stay in the same position to take each shot. That way you will see all the different angles of the light/shadow relationship as a graduation as you move the light round for each shot.

In your computer ask the same questions about the hard edges and soft graduations of light through shadow. Imagine the eggs are faces. Which will work best on a face – those hard sharp lines or the soft graduations?

Experimenting with lines

For working with more hard-edged objects I have 50 wooden children’s building blocks. I use these in the same way as the eggs. They help me plan lighting and sets/props positions for shoots.

Use one block to start. Repeat the exercise as you did with the eggs. Take eight shots using different light positions around the cube. Keep the camera and cube in the same position from the start. Just move the light to each of the eight positions around the cube. Repeat the exercise for the hard and soft light sources. You will see that the results for a hard edged object is very different to the soft edged eggs in the previous experiment. Concentrate on how the light transitions in the light/shadow relationship shown by each shot.

This time, you are asking the same types of questions… about the quality of the shadow. How intense is it? How quickly does the light/shadow relationship transition, and so on. Again, study your shots to see which you prefer. You will have a different type of result because the edges are much harder than the rounded eggs. The shadow shapes will be very different too.

The wooden blocks are useful. The set I use for this purpose is advertised to the left. It has rounded blocks and a variety of shapes. This gives you the opportunity of trying out a whole range of effects and test lighting set-ups.

Experimenting with specifics

You have experimented with rounded subjects and hard edged ones above. Now it is time to look at the other possibilities.

Try mixing rounded and square edges. Try out a few scenes using the blocks to map out props. If you have other toys around use the blocks to create little still life scenes with the toys or other objects. The idea is to try and creatively use the toys, blocks and egg to make a scene. But you must concentrate on creating sympathetic shadows. Look always for the way you can understand the balance in the light/shadow relationship and make it complement your theme.

Suppose you depict a robot war. Your best light will be hard and very direct. The harsh sharp curves will help create a chaotic and harsh environment. Try depicting a love scene between two figures. You want to use soft, diffused light to carry the romantic mood.

You see my point. You are trying out in miniature what you want to do in the real world to emphasis your message.

I used to use several action figures for testing out scenes with people. But the kids broke them eventually. These days I use cheap wooden artists dummies. They are fun to use and give a very good idea how to set up lighting for poses. The one I use is advertised to the left. It is really great for lighting tests.

The Importance of Eggs

Finally, here is a video which I posted earlier this year. It focuses on the angles of light in the light/shadow relationship. It will show you the point of the eggs exercise. So you can see how it is all done. He shows you the principles. However, you will need to try out for hard and soft light and hard and soft edges – which the video does not show… Enjoy!

The Importance of Eggs (a previous post on Photokonnexion).

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