Photography makes creative use of both deep shadow and brilliant light. These seven photographers share their favorite tips for working with heavy shadow.

Shadow-play has always been the photographer’s game. In the early and mid-1900s, modernists like Paul Strand and André Kertész wandered the streets of New York and Paris in search of long, evocative shadows cast by pedestrians and businessmen on the go. Shadows play tricks on us, and photographers use them to their advantage to create surreal, two-dimensional scenes that could never exist in real life. Like a well-executed joke, a great shadow photograph teases us and then reveals itself.

And shadows belong to all photographers, whether they prefer fine art, lifestyle, or documentary fields. We reached out to seven photographers who have mastered the art of shadow-play in all sorts of situations, spanning a wide array of genres, including street, landscape, portrait, still life, and fashion photography. Some of them shoot outdoors in the sunlight, while others use artificial light in the studio. Read on to learn their best tips for making an impression.

1. “Try to keep the frame clean and organized, and don’t include too many objects. Keep it graphic and minimalist.”

Dietlinde B. DuPlessis

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Keep Your Frame Clear of Clutter

Image by Dietlinde B. DuPlessis. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikkor 24-120 lens. Settings: Focal length 48mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f22; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this picture in the old mining town of Jerome on a trip through mid-Arizona in July 2017. While enjoying the spectacular views, this everyday motif caught my eye. Since the city is located on a mountainside, it was easy to get an elevated viewpoint. I was attracted by the simple pattern of the basketball court, but the added interest comes from the shadow of the net.

Pictured: [1] Dietlinde B. DuPlessis. [2] Dietlinde B. DuPlessis. [3] Dietlinde B. DuPlessis.

Pro Tip:

One thing about shadows: Go bold. These contrasty images are not the place for subtlety. Try to keep the frame clean and organized, and don’t include too many objects. Keep it graphic and minimalist. Try using the shadow of an object in place of the object itself. Rather than a cat, photograph the shadow of a cat, or in my example, capture the shadow of a basketball hoop rather than the actual thing. This can give viewers a new perspective on something otherwise well-known.

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2. “Early morning light on a clear day is nice because the shadows are long, and there’s a slight diffusion or haze before any dew or clouds burn off.”

Ren Fuller

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Consider the Time of Day

Image by Ren Fuller. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 24-105mm lens. Settings: Focal length 40mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f11; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken in the courtyard of a church in Oaxaca de Juarez around midday. I had already been standing there composing this shot because I loved seeing the shadows of the trees through the archway. I went to film school, which is where I learned about framing and composition, so I’m a big fan of a frame within a frame. Because the shadows of the tree were the priority, I exposed for the bright light outside of the arch, knowing that most of the frame would fall into shadow, but I did make sure my exposure allowed for a bit of detail in the shadows.

Cartier-Bresson coined the term “the decisive moment”— that moment when everything within a frame lines up in perfect balance. Catching those moments requires patience. Often, if I am struck by interesting light or an interesting frame, I take my time finding a composition that I love. After that, I wait to see if the perfect person or shadow of a person will enter that frame. In this case, I saw these two women leaving the church out of the corner of my eye, so I waited until I could catch their silhouettes.

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Embrace Strong Contrasts

Image by Ren Fuller.

Pro Tip:

The most important thing when it comes to working with shadows and strong light is exposure. Do you want to expose for harsh light and leave the shadows with no detail? Or would you rather see detail in both the light and dark parts of the frame? There’s no right answer, but it’s an important call to make based on your style. I tend to underexpose my photos because I like having the details of whatever is in the light. And because I love strong contrast, I don’t mind my blacks losing information.

I choose different times of day and even different seasons depending on what kind of images I’m making. Early morning light on a clear day is nice because the shadows are long, and there’s a slight diffusion or haze before any dew or clouds burn off. It’s a great time of day to shoot portraits or street scenes. Shooting in the middle of the day is harder because the light is so harsh, but it’s fantastic for strong contrast. Winter shadows are long and glorious; paired with the cooler tones of the light, it’s a great time of the year to go out and shoot street photography. I also love the end-of-day shadows in summer as well as the quality of light at magic hour. This time of day and year is when I most enjoy shooting things like lifestyle, food, or landscape photos.

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3. “When working with shadows and strong light, decide how you’re going to utilize the sun or strongest light source.”

Natasha Lee

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Make the Best of Your Light Sources

Image by Natasha Lee. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, EF24-70 f2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f5.6; ISO 125.

What’s the story behind this photo?

We had just arrived in Todos Santos, Mexico, in the late afternoon. We went in search of an early dinner at El Faro Beach Club, an oceanfront restaurant off the main freeway that runs along Baja California Sur. I wandered the property to photograph details before sitting down to order, and the bright orange wall caught my eye. I noticed the striking banana leaves immediately and loved the way the late afternoon shadows added another textural element to the composition.

I adjusted my settings quickly and captured the shot. When traveling, I usually shoot handheld so I can move quickly and change compositions swiftly. Most of the time, the most photogenic moments on-the-go tend to be fleeting and will disappear in a split second. I was fortunate to have captured this shot when I did because a few minutes later, the clouds moved over the sun, flattening out the shadows for the next hour before dusk fell.

Pictured: [1] Natasha Lee. [2] Natasha Lee.

Pro Tip:

When working with shadows and strong light, decide how you’re going to utilize the sun or strongest light source. Will it be your key, fill, or edge light? If you have the time, move the person or object in different directions to see which type of shadow best reflects the story you want to tell. Don’t be afraid to play around until it’s to your liking.

It’s also important to be a student of light, almost to the point of being obsessive, especially when you’re not shooting. As you go about your day, pay constant attention to light and shadows. Observe how the light hits your cup of coffee on a bright or overcast morning, and notice how the highlights bounce off a building in mid-afternoon. Study the harshness and the directions of shadows as the sun moves throughout the day.

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4. “Think of light and shadow as the two main characters in any picture, after the model.”

Mayer George

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Light and Shadow as Your Subjects

Image by Mayer George. Gear: Hasselblad 503CW camera, Phase One P30 digital back, Planar 2,8/80mm lens. Settings: Focal length 80mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f6.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

One of the first photographers whose works I got to know was Frantisek Drtikol, the great Czech experimentalist photographer of the early 20th century. His followers were Man Ray, Horst P. Horst, Victor Skrebneski, and many other classics from the past. This image is from my award-winning Shadows series, 2015, which was created with the aid of special optic equipment and with the use of Gobo masks. All the masks were made manually.

Pictured: [1] Mayer George. [2] Mayer George. [3] Mayer George.

Pro Tip:

Think of light and shadow as the two main characters in any picture, after the model. Shadows enable us to emphasize and accent details and even to create illusions, like the illusion of clothes on the naked body.

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5. “Shadows can easily kill a photo without you even noticing. For that reason, we want to choose shadows that are compositional elements within the scene.”

Cheryl Ramalho

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Shadows as Part of Composition

Image by Cheryl Ramalho. Gear: Panasonic DMC-G5 mirrorless camera; Panasonic Lumix Vario 35-100/f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/80 sec EV -0.66; f11; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This image was shot in the Namib Desert at sunrise. I loved the sun-kissed look on the front of the dunes as well as the dark shadows behind them. The shadows, which at first seemed like an irritating distraction, became an important part of the composition. Getting the right exposure was the trickiest part, as I wanted to keep some detail in the shadows but not have the sky blown out. I paid close attention to my histogram to make sure I didn’t clip the black area on the left side. In this case, I actually had to underexpose because there was so much brightness in the sky and the sunny areas of the dunes.

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Pay Attention to Your Histogram

Image by Cheryl Ramalho.

Pro Tip:

In general, you need to watch out for shadows. Shadows can easily kill a photo without you even noticing. For that reason, we want to choose shadows that are compositional elements within the scene.

Pay very close attention to your histogram when shooting in a high contrast situation with strong light and dark shadows. In the case of very strong contrast, it can also look a little unbalanced to have too much darkness in your final image, so you will most likely want to lift the shadows a little in post-processing. Do that when viewing at 100%, and watch out for grain. Shadows can be tricky, but they’re beautiful when you get them right.

6. “If you are working outside with direct sunlight, try to find a place where the sunlight only affects the subject and not the background.”

Manu Prats

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Think About the Direction of the Light

Image by Manu Prats. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, Nikon 50mm f1.4D lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f3.2; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This image was shot during a bridal makeup session. I told the bride to sit in front of me and to look towards the window. When I realized I had a powerful image, I framed her with the mirror at the end of the room. There were beautiful shadows, with light on her face, her shoulder, and her curly hair.

Pictured: [1] Manu Prats. [2] Manu Prats.

Pro Tip:

When you work with harsh sunlight, the first thing you have to think about is the direction of the light. If you are working outside with direct sunlight, try to find a place where the sunlight only affects the subject and not the background. If you work indoors, always play with windows and the distance between the subject, the light source, and the background. Learn to love shadows, and don’t be afraid of them.

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7. “Harsh daylight can produce strong images when the objects are partially highlighted and partially in shadow.”

Elena Dijour

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Utilize Harsh Light

Image by Elena Dijour. Gear: Nikon D40 camera, AF-S Nikkor VR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 66mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f3.5; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

It was a gloomy day, and not much light entered the room. The light that did come in illuminated the white wall, creating deep shadows with the fading anemone flowers standing in a vase on the table. I brought the flowers closer to the wall so the still-living, three-dimensional object touched its own flattened shadow. In my mind, it created an image that reflects on life, aging, illness, and death. I captured the picture and then converted it to black and white and added more contrast to emphasize the idea of a transition from one state to another.

7 Artists on Using Strong Shadows in Photography — Seek Dramatic Natural Light

Image by Elena Dijour.

Pro Tip:

Since my photos are mostly not staged, I am looking for objects that are dramatically lit in a natural way. Usually, this happens when the light source is behind the subject or the subject is lit from the side. Harsh daylight can produce strong images when the objects are partially highlighted and partially in shadow. In urban scenes, evening sunlight is great for producing images with long shadows of walking people framed by buildings in deep shadow.

Top Image by Elena Dijour.