Help us keep the lights on:
Join this years fundraising campaign and get a limited edition supporter's cap.
Read more about our plans and needs for 2024 and beyond.


Sign up Login
Home Forums Articles Galleries Members Galleries Master Your Vision Galleries 5Contest Categories 5Winners Galleries 5ANPAT Galleries 5 The Winners Editor's Choice Portfolios Recent Photos Search Contest Info Help News Newsletter Join us Renew Membership About us Retrieve password Contact us Contests Vouchers Wiki Apps THE NIKONIAN™ For the press Fundraising Search Help!


In praise of shadows - Part 1

J. Norman Reid (Positives)

Keywords: postprocessing, lightroom, photoshop, luminosity, hue, saturation, cropping, j_norman_reid_positives, shadows, shapes

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.

To read the rest of the article, please log in. This article is available to all Silver, Gold and Platinum Nikonians members. If you are not registered yet, please do so. To discover the world of Nikonians and the advantages of being a registered member, take our short discovery tour.


Alane Shoemaker (Peregrination) on February 5, 2024

Thank you for all of your valuable insight.

Dawn Woolsey (Dawnacious) on July 8, 2023

Donor Ribbon awarded for the contribution to the 2024 campaign

Very informative and inspiring article! Thank you for posting, looking forward to part II.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on July 7, 2023

Very nice piece, thanks! Looking forward to part 2. I have a deep connection to "In Praise of Shadows." When I arrived to work in Japan an elderly colleague gave me a copy of Tanizaki's book and told me that I would not understand Japanese culture unless I mastered it. He was right. He taught me that shadows are not just an aesthetic element in Japan, but also a metaphor for how the society functions..what should be said, and what should not be said...what is done openly, and what is done discretely...what is the façade (tatemae), and what is the inner truth (honne)...and so on. These are all woven with as much care and intricacy in the social realm as they are employed in architecture.

Tom Conway (coastalshooter) on July 6, 2023

Very helpful article, clearly written with appropriate (well composed) photos. Thanks for posting.

David Summers (dm1dave) on July 5, 2023

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Outstanding article, looking forward to part 2.