The Importance of Shadows in Portrait Photography

The post The Importance of Shadows in Portrait Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.

When you’re starting out with learning how to light your photography, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of blasting your subjects with light from all angles. The results are often bright images without a hint of a shadow anywhere. Sometimes that’s exactly what the job calls for: bright, cleanly lit images with very little contrast. However, obliterating the shadows in your images can have a negative impact.

The difference between heavily lit images and those with the shadows maintained can be astounding.

Deliberate and effective use of shadows in your images can help to create a natural contrast and depth, convey drama and emotion, and provide you with powerful compositional elements in your photography.

This article will discuss these reasons why it’s not only important to retain the shadows in your imagery, but to keep them in primary consideration while you are still planning your images. There is also an outline of a simple exercise you can do to help you to start better seeing shadows, and how they affect your images, that you can use to improve your understanding of light.

Not just low-key

Obviously, low-key images rely heavily on shadows, but shadows are important in all styles of photography.

It is important to clarify one thing here. This concept doesn’t just apply to low-key images where the vast majority of the space in the frame is dominated by shadow tones. In fact, shadows are just as important to brightly lit images as they help to define the shape and features of your subject.

Why shadows are important

Retaining the shadows in your images can do a lot of things for you, especially in terms of image design. Listed below are a few of these for you to consider.

Depth and contrast

Retaining shadows in your images can help give you a natural contrast and add depth to your images.

Contrast, in terms of this article, is the tonal difference between dark and light. This contrast is how we see things in three dimensions and it’s exactly how you can create the appearance of three dimensions in your two-dimensional imagery. The thing is, it’s hard to do this without shadows. (It’s also difficult to do it without specular highlights, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.)

For example, to illustrate the three-dimensional nature of a nose, you need a highlight that graduates into mid-tones. The highlight indicates the closest point of the nose to the light. Assuming the light is above your subject, shadows will fall underneath the nose. This provides a visual indicator that the nose is protruding from the face. Without the shadows, there will be little, if any, differentiation between the nose and the rest of the subject’s face. This results in a flat, unsettling image. Even if your viewers cannot figure out what they’re looking at, they will still be aware that something seems wrong.

Ensuring that you have shadows in your images will help to have pleasing, natural-looking images in any type of lighting.

Add drama and evoke mood

Shadows are a fantastic tool when you are trying to create images that evoke mood and emotion.

Generous use of shadow tones in your images is one of the quickest and most effective ways to evoke a sense of mood and helps you to create images with bags of drama.

You can do this in a number of ways including:

Backlighting and short lighting

Short lighting is a great tool to help you place shadows where they have the most impact.

Lighting your subject from behind will render most of the foreground of your frame as shadow tones, with only certain aspects of your subjects rendered with highlights.

To control the strength of your shadows, you can change the size and shape of your light source, change the distance between the light source and your subject, or fill the shadows with a secondary light source.

Lighting choice

Making a deliberate lighting choice (like the 2’x2′ softbox used here) to emphasize your shadows is one of the easiest ways to take control of the shadows in your imagery.

If you use a small(ish) light source in close to your subject, you can make use of the faster rate of light fall off to help introduce shadows into your images.

For an even better grasp of this, pick a few movies or television shows (especially dramas) and study the lighting choices during dramatic scenes with a lot of dialogue. In a lot of cases, you will find that there was a conscious choice to light the actors in a way that highlights specific features while throwing most of the rest of the actor in shadow.

Compositional elements

Shadows are a great way to help compose your images and can help you to draw attention to your focal point.

Shadows can be used to wonderful effect in crafting compositional devices within your images. Using darker tones to frame your subject, or to lead your viewer’s eye to what you want them to see can help to make more dynamic and interesting images.


Shadows don’t have to be dark. Even filled in with additional lights, you can still use shadows for contrast and depth.

When you’re talking about shadows, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to ultra dark tones with little or no visible detail. By using fill lights, you can still light every single part of your image while retaining shadow tone. If you expose your fill light two or three stops below your key light, you will still have the appearance of contrast in your images, but you will retain all the finer details that would be missing if you hadn’t used fill.

An exercise in shadows

To get the grips with this concept, try this simple exercise with a lot of different subjects.

First, choose a subject. Any subject will do, but you might want to start with something static.

Take a good, critical look at what you’ve picked to photograph and start thinking about the lighting. However, instead of thinking about the highlights, try to focus only on where you want to place your shadows.

With that decided, pick a light source (a desk lamp will do) and light your subject so that you have the desired effect.

If you want to take this further, once you have your shadows in place, you can further modify and manipulate your light so that the highlights behave in a way that compliments the shadows.

That’s it

While this is a simple concept, it can seem counterintuitive. When you’re approaching lighting, of course it makes sense to think about the highlights first; however, incorporating some extra thought about your shadows can help take your lighting skills to a new level. Try the exercise above with a few different subjects, and evaluate if and how you can make shadows work for you in your photography.

The post The Importance of Shadows in Portrait Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.

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