Learn to love light AND shadow

December 9, 2020

Spray-and-pray. Anyone who’s held a camera has used this method of photography, usually when you first start out (and hopefully only then).

Spray-and-pray refers to the fever pitch creative mania one deploys in the pursuit of a great image.

An event is unfolding in front of you. Maybe it’s an exchange of wedding vows. Or your child is taking her first steps. Perhaps a fiery sunset lights the ocean horizon in a mix of reds, oranges, and purples.

Clickclickclickclickclickclick.

You feel so much buzzing excitement about making a picture you can show off on your social platforms, one you can print out in a poster size and hang it on a wall in your house, so cognizant you become of how fleeting the moment is. You fire aware on your shutter release button without even thinking, it’s all so good and perfect.

Clickclickclickclickclickclick.

You end up taking a thousand photos. But afterwards, as you peruse them with anticipation on your phone or computer, you realize you might have one or two you’re impressed with. The rest are … meh.

Writers, as you begin to think about photography skills, as you try to up your photo making game, there are two things you should begin to focus on before hitting that shutter release button — light and shadow.

When you come to respect both, even to love both, you’ll begin to slow down, to think your image through as your finger hovers over the shutter release button. And your images will improve.

Let’s take a brief look at why it’s important for you to appreciate light and shadow. We’ll start with the former.

Light

Okay, I’m gonna say something really dumb right now, but we have to start somewhere, right?

Without light, there’s no photo.

Lauren Dague | Hempfield

Now before you click away, please know I’m not trying to be condescending here and I’m so sorry if I come across that way.

What I’m encouraging you, my fellow writer, to do is to think about light and to see light before making an image. It’s not something instinctual. It’s a skill you work on.

Every situation you find yourself in, begin to ask yourself — where’s the light coming from?

Is it sunlight through a window? A ceiling lamp? A TV screen? Sunlight reflected off water?

Light comes from somewhere. And here I’m gonna blow books right off your shelves — light is directional. It doesn’t just float randomly. It’s like water flowing out of a cup before it spills and spreads on the tabletop.

Think about those partially cloudy days when you can see actual gorgeous rays of sunshine. Think about how a floor lamp, depending on the shade, shine light down on a couch or up to a ceiling.

That’s directional light. And it’s important to begin seeing it because it will help you not only illuminate the person or subject you want to photograph, but once you begin to control it, you’ll be able to use it to tell a story with your images.

More on that later.

If you have a baseball laying around in your garage, go get it, then clear your dining room table. Turn out the lights, and make sure sunlight is coming in through a window. Place the baseball on the table, then walk around. Watch how the light makes the baseball look differently depending on your angle. Move the baseball with your fingers and see how angle reveals texture.

Move it closer to the window. How about farther away? Turn it around so the seams create shadows. Move it to where you can get a better view of any scuffs or blemishes on the baseball.

Light’s kinda fun, ain’t it?

Now, if you had a camera in your hand, where would you place yourself to take a photo of that baseball? Think about it for a moment.

Lemme suggest here in the beginning of your journey toward better photography, start by standing next to the window and pointing your camera at the baseball on the dining room table in a general, parallel direction as the light. Then, don’t be afraid to move around a little. Get perpendicular to the direction of the light. Try different angles. See what you like.

In a future post, we’ll talk about how to manipulate and even add light, but for now, work on noticing the direction of light and ask yourself how you would photograph what you’re seeing based on that light.

Shadow

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

You know the timeless writing advice you get about the iceberg? The one where you only reveal on the page a little about your story while keeping most of it as something implied?

The strategy adds intrigue. A reader will beg you, the writer, to share more. It will prompt them to turn pages quickly to see if you’ll reveal more of the iceberg.

Well, there’s something similar in photography, and it has to do with shadow.

Shadow in a photograph, particularly with people but also with places, animals, and objects, adds drama. It shows texture. It gives an image character.

Take a look at this image below. It’s my wife holding our youngest son in our hospital room just days after his birth. She’s talking softly to him, bonding with him, soothing him.

It’s a touching moment. And for me, using shadow represented the drama of that moment unfolding in front of me.

Not everyone loves this photo (his grandmother comes to mind). The baby’s face is completely in shadow. But for me, that’s the point.

I want your eyes to go right to his face, to peer into those shadows, to try and see what details you can. It’s like storytelling in that I’m not revealing every little detail of his face right away.

I want the viewer of this photo to linger a while, to explore it, and I try to encourage that exploration through the use of shadow.

How you use shadow is up to you. I’ve been influenced by photographers who use it as much as they do light, but you may like to use shadow less.

Or you may enjoy the ongoing trend of light-and-airy photos. Find any wedding magazine these days, and you’ll see what I mean.

If that’s your style, go for it. I won’t talk you out of it. Much.

But for those who want some serious drama in their images, who want to buck the trend and go for a different style, then experiment with shadow. See what you enjoy.

The balance of light and shadow

I could easily write a book about all the techniques of using light and shadow. And you’re guaranteed to read more in the weeks, months, and years to come at Pidgeon’s-Eye View, because, well, let’s face it — photography is the skillful capture of light and shadow.

Once you begin to think about photography with a mind toward light and shadow, you’ll never see the world the same again. You’ll never look at a person seated at a coffeeshop without noticing how the light plays on his face or note shadows creeping across the facade of a European cathedral.

When you begin to respect light and shadow, you’ll also slow down your creative process, which is a healthy thing. By slow down, we become more deliberate, more attentive to the image we’re creating.

Give it a try, writers. Experiment. More light. More shadow. Less of one or the other. Find what you like. And I look forward to seeing what you create.

Dave Pidgeon was a pathetic spray-and-pray photographer before he took a wedding photography workshop that focused on lighting techniques. He’s also a writer and lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife, Alison, and their three sons. You can contact him at dave@pidgeonseyeview.com.

More about Dave Pidgeon

Dave is the author of PidgeonsEyeView.com and lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and their three sons.

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