As photographers, we’re familiar with the oft-used phrase, “it’s all about the light.” True enough, it’s light that lets us create our photographs. Light comes in many delightful forms, and we love harnessing its amount, direction, and quality to make photos that draw attention. Rightly, light takes first place in composing photographic images.
But perhaps because we’re so light-conscious, it’s easy to overlook the nearly equal importance of shadows. It’s an unfortunate fact that many photographers see shadows as merely places where light did not happen to fall. Yet this view overlooks the creative potential of shadows and their critical importance to compelling images.
Shadows are much more than the mere absence of light, and they contribute to strong photographs in many ways. When they take on definite shapes, shadows can make up important compositional elements. But even when they lack defined shapes, shadows are a counterpoint to the lighter parts of an image, helping to guide the eye toward the intended points of greatest interest. By doing so, shadows often define the shape, direction, and source of the light. As longtime Life Magazinephotographer Andreas Feininger stated in The Creative Photographer, shadows can provide “forceful accents upon which sometimes the whole composition of a picture can be based.” In some cases, shadows make up negative space that puts a sharp focus on the lighter areas of an image.
Shadows contribute to quality images in many other ways. As I’ll demonstrate in this two-part article, shadows occur in many forms and can take on a wide range of tonal values. Textural variations in shadows are important factors in the overall impression of an image. By hiding or reserving a subject from full view, shadows can contribute to a sense of mystery, wonder, anticipation, and depth of meaning. As Feininger points out, shadows can symbolize such intangible concepts as “strength, power, drama, poverty, suffering, death.” The hint of ambiguity they sometimes display is what Japanese writer Jun’ichirōTanizaki, in his short book In Praise of Shadows, from which the title of this article is drawn, calls “a moment of trance.”
For these reasons, shadows deserve serious consideration when crafting photographs. In most cases, good use of shadows is every bit as important as effective use of light. In the examples presented in this two-part article, I hope to demonstrate why this is so.
Much of what I’ll have to say in this article is informed by Michael Freeman’s recent book, Light & Shadow. Freeman demonstrates that shadows, rather than being bland and easily neglected parts of images, can have a wide range of tonal values. Referring to the Zone System popularized by Ansel Adams, shadows can be totally black, which places them in Zone 0. Or they can constitute deep shadows, Zones I and II. When they fall into Zone III, they reveal some texture that is often a valuable part of an image. Even in bright light or when light is reflected back into the shadowed areas, open shadowed conditions occur when the shaded area falls into Zone IV. Taken altogether, shadows make up close to half of the dynamic range of the Zone System and have a broader effective tonal range than the highlighted zones of images, with the remainder falling into the midtones. Photo 1 illustrates the broad range of tones that can occur within shadows.
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