Embracing the Dark Side: A Guide to Shadow Play

Learn how to capture stunning images with these tips on shooting shadows and harsh light on mobile.

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So here’s the thing: somewhere along the way, I fell pretty hard for shadows. I’m not sure how or when it happened. But ever since then, I’ve been obsessed. I mean, I think I might actually hear 80s power ballads when I see dramatic shadows happening.

But in all seriousness, I know that managing hard shadows (and the bright light that creates them) can be intimidating — especially when you're just starting out. So if you're not sure how to approach shadows in your photography, I put together these tips for you:


Fact of life: you don’t get those crisp and dramatic hard shadows without bright light. And while sunlight is about as bright as it gets, it isn’t always the easiest light to shoot in. But I’m hear to tell you it’s not as hard as it seems — half the battle is just stepping into the light with your camera in hand. You got this.

And when you finally get to it, do yourself one big favor: pay attention to the angle of the light. I generally like the sun to be anywhere from just over the horizon to 60-ish degrees up in the sky — it just makes life easier in my eyes. When the light gets more overhead than that, the shadows start to lose some of their interesting angles and just become harder to work with. But even if you decide to get crazy and step out in that midday sun to shoot, there’s still magic to be made if you keep trying.

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One of the first things I did when I started getting into shadow play was to really look for what was already available — shadows coming from windows, architecture, outdoor art, plants/trees, etc. You’ll be amazed at what you notice once you start looking.

Then, I took the next step of trying to build on those existing shadows to create something a little more unique to my vision. For me, that meant showing “interaction” with the shadows in a way that made them even more real. How? These days, I usually do it by inserting a model (and their shadow) into the scene. Sometimes that means having the subject touch the shadows, and at other times that means having the subject play off of the curves and lines that the shadows create. Even catching a person as they exit/enter the shadows feels like the two are interacting. It’s another reason to never underestimate how much better a scene can get when you add a human element.

But if a model isn’t in the cards for you, don’t hesitate to use yourself or whatever props you can find. You can create amazing images all by yourself if you’re willing to push yourself to experiment a little.

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Of course, sometimes the shadows you’re finding aren’t doing it for you, or maybe you’re just looking to shoot in a location where amazing shadows don’t already exist. When that happens, it’s time to turn it up creatively and think a little differently.

One thing you can try is holding up different objects in front of the sunlight — a piece of cardboard, a fallen tree branch, or anything else that seems like it might create an interesting shadow. Another thing I recently started using? Thin sheets and curtains. I love that they allow you to see a subject’s shadow from both sides, while casting a shadow of their own. Also, you can play off of wardrobe pieces like jackets, hats, and scarves that you or a model might be wearing. Last, but definitely not least, don’t forget about your (or the subject’s) body. I’ve seen some incredible shadows happen just using hands, arms, legs, etc.

Bottom line: interesting shadows can come from anywhere. So don’t limit yourself. Challenge yourself.

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Any time you can get the shadows perfect in-camera, it’s a win. And a big key to making sure the really dramatic shadows you see in the moment stay that way in-camera is to nail your exposure.

So how does that happen? Just make sure you expose for the highlights in your photo and go from there. That helps to make sure the brightest parts of your image aren’t blown out, and that the darkest parts are as dark as they can be. Then you can tweak the exposure in-camera to brighten those shadows a bit if needed. Side note: if you decide you want to go the other way and play with exposing for the shadows, go for it! It’ll give you a completely different effect by taking the brightest parts of the image and completely blowing them out, but you can get some really creative images doing that.

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Not everybody loves post-processing. And that’s okay. But even if you do everything right and capture a creative image with the shadows exposed exactly like you wanted them, sometimes you still need to adjust things a little.

My biggest tip for post-processing: find your style by experimenting. I know it sounds a little vague, but stay with me. At first, focus on adjusting the shadows, highlights, exposure and contrast — the four settings that’ll affect the look of your shadows the most. Then get crazy with other settings and see what happens. Maybe see if you prefer the image more as color or black and white. It’s all fair game. Just make sure whatever you end up with fits the vision you have in your head. Some people love to really crush the shadows and boost the highlights to get really stark contrast in their images. Others are into a less dramatic effect, and try to brighten the shadows a little to bring out more detail. In the end, there’s no right or wrong answer here. If you dig it, do it.

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Robert Strickland

Robert is a full-time freelance photographer based in Dallas, Texas. After a decade as a graphic designer for various agencies, he decided to switch things up and strike out on his own to pursue creativity through the camera. When he’s not on a shoot, Robert happily spends his time being a dad, a husband, and the head of laundry for the Strickland household.

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