XVI. Shadows

Shadows are a part of most images, yet they’re generally not given much attention. They do, however, contribute greatly to the illusion of three dimensions and “normal” everyday reality by providing evidence of depth and contrast.

Used with awareness and purposefulness, they can be a valuable tool as an aesthetic dimension, even turn an ordinary subject into an image that “pops.”


If the communication objective, the point of an image, is to document or convey information, it’s good to be aware of the shadows. Here, I wanted to enhance the sensibility of roundness, so I chose an angle that lengthened the shadows of the ladder and let them lead the eye into the graded shadow to the left. 

When the point of an image is to express a feeling for the subject, shadows can be manipulated so they enhance the positive features of a face or object, and hide less attractive features. It’s the Johnny Mercer song: “You gotta ac-centuate the positive, e-liminat the negative. And don’t mess with Mr. In Between.”


Shadows have four characteristics: intensity, sharpness, length, and directionality.

Relative Brightness Of Shadows

The relative brightness of a shadow depends on how much ambient or “fill” light there is in the situation. Indoors, professionals begin with three lights to create a flattering portrait. A “key” or main light, which is always the brightest, indicates the light’s quality (color), brightness, and direction. With only the key light turned on, it casts a shadow on the opposite side of the face, so a “fill” light is placed on that side to lighten the shadows. The fill light is either less bright than the key or placed at a greater distance from the subject. It’s the fill light—often just a reflector these days—that determines the relative brightness of the shadows. The third light is a backlight, placed high and behind the subject to create a barely noticeable rim of light around the head and shoulders to create separation from the background. This “3-point” lighting setup is an industry guideline, a way to establish a starting point upon which to build variations. Here, the key light is on the left side of my face and the fill light on the right, providing some detail in the shadows.

Shadow Sharpness — Notice the edges

The more “specular” the light source, the sharper the shadow it creates. A specular source often called a “point source,” is tiny and bright with little or no diffusion. It’s the sun at noon on a cloudless day, and it’s a bare 500-1000 watt quartz bulb with no diffusion.

As a light source becomes more diffused, the shadows spread out. Outside, clouds or anything else in the atmosphere diffuses the rays of the sun. Inside or in the studio, diffusion can be created by putting any translucent material in front of a light. High-end camera stores stock a wide variety of materials and equipment for diffusion. 

Shadow Length

The length of a shadow is determined by the angle of the light source to the subject matter. A high light source diminishes the length of the shadows it creates. Conversely, the lower the source, the longer the shadows. Here, the shadows were made to dominate by exposing the film to maintain some detail in the highlights. Doing that makes the shadows go dark to the point of nullifying the ambient light. In reality, because my eyes were adjusted to the situation the shadows were not as pronounced as they are here. 

Shadow Direction

Shadows always fall away from the light source. Regarding the direction they fall, the choice is either to ignore them or use them within a composition to a greater or lesser extent. Photographers and painters will use “cast shadows” to emphasize the size or shape of an object or person.

Contemplating Shadows in Personal and Social Contexts

An anonymous quote in my database says, “The shadow side is just the unconscious not yet enlightened.” If we could see our true nature illuminated, there would be no perception of the shadows side.  

Just as shadows are projections of darkness relative to a light source, so the light within can project shadows, dark areas we prefer not to let out or see. But like shadows cast from the sun or a lamp, like it or not, the dark areas in life keep us grounded in reality and provide a sense of depth and dimension. What do we tend to keep in the shadows? 

As a category, I think they’re the things that appear as discrepancies compared to an idealized perception of how life should be. We’d prefer not to see, hear, or experience poverty, suffering, or violence directly. Experiencing them vicariously in novels, movies, and television is quite enough. Psychiatrist Carl Jung, who had a deep interest in the shadow aspect of personality, said “our failure to recognize, acknowledge and deal with shadow elements is often the root of problems between individuals and within groups and organizations; it is also what fuels prejudice between minority groups or countries and can spark off anything between an interpersonal row and a major war.” 

His comment made me wonder: How best to react or respond to the “shadow elements” that we or others express in everyday living? For insight, I looked for quotes by religious leaders who dealt with them head-on.

Poverty — Jesus

  • Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him, there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
  • If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
  • It is more blessed to give than to receive.
  • Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

Suffering — Buddha

  • Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity. 
  • When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.
  • Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.
  • As you travel through life, offer good wishes to each being you meet… May I hold myself in compassion. May I meet the suffering and ignorance of others with compassion.

Violence — Mahatma Gandhi

  • I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. 
  • Violence is the weapon of the weak, non-violence that of the strong.
  • Once one assumes an attitude of intolerance, there is no knowing where it will take one. Intolerance, someone has said, is violence to the intellect and hatred is violence to the heart.
  • Conquer the heart of the enemy with truth and love, not by violence.

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”



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