Three little known facts about shadows

What is shadow? Why is it so important in photography?

What is shadow? Why is it so important in photography?

Shadow is difficult to understand… it’s, well, shadowy.

To a photographer the nature of shadow is the second most important concept we work with, but most don’t understand what it is. Here is a look at three ideas to help you know shadow.

First, you may ask, what is the most important concept to a photographer before shadow? Light… it’s the very centre of photography. It is also the reason we have shadow.

Fact no. 1 – It’s all in the difference

Light and shadow are in fact the same thing. They are not opposites. Dark is the absence of light – a pretty rare thing in modern times. But, shadow is the difference between a particular light intensity and a lower light intensity next to it. Shadow is created by an object intercepting the light from a light source. Light passing the object will be brighter than the light where the beam has been blocked.

Fact no. 2 – It’s not dark in the shadow because…

Light is pretty fickle stuff. It travels in straight lines (direct light) unless it bounces off something. In fact light will bounce off almost anything – even the atmosphere. We see everything around us because light has bounced off things and then entered our eyes. Places with a lot of light bouncing around from different objects and in many directions is said to have diffused light. Some of that light will be bounced into shadow areas. It lightens the shadows. Some light is produced by big light sources like a photographer’s umbrella. This causes a less direct or soft light. The soft light source creates shadows with poorly defined edges. The shadows have a gradual transition from light to the darker shadow areas. Where soft light and diffusion occurs you get less shadow and it is poorly defined.

Fact no. 3 – Direct light and little diffusion equals hard light

Direct light, where there is little diffusion, creates sharp edges on the shadows. The shadow abruptly stops and the brighter light starts. This is called hard light and is normally created by a small light source. Because there is little diffusion the shadow is more intense. This is because there is no diffused light bouncing into the shadow area to lighten it. Hard light and little diffusion creates well defined shadows.

Where does this lead us

The photographer works mainly with light intensity, direction, colour and hardness. Together these components create the quality of light that is so important for successful photography. We intuitively understand intensity and direction. Colour in light is something that we gradually learn to see (harsh blue of mid-day to the golden glow of dusk).

Most photographers don’t immediately see the difference between hard and soft light, and what the effects are on shadow formation. However, shadows are of great importance because they define what we see many ways. More intense shadows stand out more. As they catch our eye we are better able to see what is causing them. As we do so we become aware of the shapes and forms that are sculpting the shadows. In other words, shadows help to give definition to the objects and world around us.

Photography is a two dimensional media. We are very experienced at seeing the world in three dimensions. When we see a flat representation of the world we are able to interpret it in three dimensions because we understand how shape and form are portrayed by the light/shadow relationship. So get to know shadows, hard and soft. Become skilled at capturing them in your images. You will be better able to create a three dimensional world for your viewer – even within a two dimensional medium.