This module is concerned, for the most part, with clear, hard-edged shadows as an essential part of the composition. The easiest way to define them is by asking what would happen if the same picture were taken on an overcast day, or with diffuse lighting. If the picture ceases to exist, or changes very significantly, then the shadows are an essential part of the picture.

Shadows as a graphic element


These are the easiest to recognize and define. The object casting the shadow may or may not be present in the picture, but if it is not, then at least it is recognizable from its shadow.


Railings, Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Romania


Frances took this picture in about 2006, and the more we see it, the more we like it. The railings are clearly the inspiration for the picture, but Frances shot it (with her Bessa-T and 50/2.5 Voigtländer Color-Skopar on Kodak Tri-X) with and without people. The lower part of the picture (foreground) has been cropped out because the chains and loops were just too big and loose in the uncropped picture.

At first the disembodied legs are disquieting, but they give additional depth and context to the picture. It is something between Picture Post -- an evocation of a particular time and place -- and Martin Parr's gentle urban angst. Without the people, it is rather sterile and 1930s in mood, and would probably have been given a twee title and done well in a photographic competition. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.



lamp & shadow


Wall, lamp, shadow, Pecs, Hungary

Another of Frances's pictures, and another where there just wouldn't have been a picture without the strong sunlight. The shadow is a much stronger picture element than the lamp itself, the upper part of which is almost lost against the foliage behind the wall.

lamp & shadow crop


She used (as far as we recall) her Voigtländer Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Voigtländer Nokton. It was on colour negative, but we forget which; it was scanned directly using a Konica Minolta Dimage 5400 II, rather than being wet printed.

As you can see from the picture on the left, if you crop the picture too much (a similar effect could have been achieved with a 90mm lens), it becomes graphically stronger but it loses almost everything else: context, a great deal of the warm, sunny feel, and of course the shape of the lamp itself, which is of interest only because we can see its shadow...



Roof, Church of St. Martin, near Taizé


Texture is important in this shot, and a (rather different) picture would have been entirely feasible on an overcast day, but the real interest of the composition rests in the dramatically crenellated edges of the tiled room which are effectively invisible apart from the shadows they cast. Although shadows that change shape as they are projected onto different surfaces can easily be a cliché, in this case we feel that the pattern is simple enough that it works.

The darkest part of the shadows is pitch black in the print (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone) even though Roger exposed the shot to allow for some texture in then. It is almost always preferable to have more shadow detail than you need, so that you can throw it away if you don't want it, than to have insufficient shadow detail when you do want it.

The camera was an old KowaSIX inherited from Frances's father, with a yellow (or possibly orange) filter on its 85/2.8 standard lens, the only lens we have for it. Film was Maco Cube 400.


st martin roof shadow


How much shadow do you need?


In many of the pictures in this module, the shadows either occupy much of the picture area, or are the dominant graphic element. You do not, however, always need very much shadow area. Sometimes a small area of very dark shadow can draw disproportionate attention to itself.

This also gives the lie to all those articles you read in photo magazines about how it's easier to take good picture in overcast weather. Some kinds of pictures, maybe, for some kinds of photographers, but we're almost always happier in sunny weather, and we think it shows in our pictures.


Door, Loches


Roger shot this with our Voigtländer Bessa R2 and 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar, on Ilford XP2 Super. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. As with the picture of the roof of St. Martin's, above, it would have been perfectly practical to take a picture on an overcast day, but we do not think it would have been anything like as successful unless, perhaps, it had been shot on medium or large format to capture the texture still more sharply.

The glancing light throws all the textures into sharp relief, flattering an already sharp and contrasty lens; in this case, the shadows are tiny. The only big shadow is the one from the door-handle on the lower left, and our feeling is that this lens the picture a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking.

door loches


The point made in the caption immediately above is important: hard shadows make most lenses look good, because they make the picture look sharper. Yes, they can swallow up important detail, if you choose the wrong subject or the wrong composition, or if you over-develop the film or print it on excessively hard paper.




All this tells us, though, is that you change your composition (and if necessary your technique) to suit the subject and the conditions. There is more about this under the heading 'Technical Considerations,' below.

Sometimes, too, on a sunny day you may look at a subject and decide to come back on a day when there is less contrast; or on an overcast day you might decide to wait until it is sunny. A small pocket compass can be useful in the latter case, for determining the best time to come back and indeed whether there will be any shadows at all. There is not much hope if the building in question is north-facing, after all, and it's easy to become disoriented on an overcast day.



Sunshade, South of France


The shade on the right, from the wall and trees, is less important than the incredibly fine stripes of shadow from the sun-shade. Frances shot this with her Alpa 12 S/WA, using the 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon on 6x9cm nominal (56x84mm actual) Ilford HP5 Plus, the equivalent of 15mm on full-frame 35mm. Printing (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, selenium-toned) involved a fair amount of burning to hold detail in the cobbled foreground and dodging to hold detail in the shadows on the right.


Shadow as subject


Only very rarely, at least in the pictures we take, is it difficult or impossible to see what the shadow is; in other words, what causes it. Partly this is becase we both dislike 'trick' or 'what-is-it' pictures intensely. It is not difficult, after all, to take an unrecognizable picture of something, usually via an extreme close up. Rather more, we are convinced, it is because we seldom see such subjects, though the image on the right is a rare example. Because of our antipathy to trick pictures, we always explain hastily what it was, when we show it to people.





The reason for the title is obvious: that's what it looks like, a storybook mage with puffy sleeves and a strange hat, holding something in one hand. Actually, Roger dodn't realize this when he shot the picture (with a Leica MP on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100, probably with a 90/4 Makro-Elmar-M, though he is no longer sure exactly which lens it was), though he did deliberately under-exposure to make sure that the shadow was a solid black and to saturate the colours.

It's in Levoca in Slovakia, and the actual subject matter is a buttessed wall (the slope on the left is the buttress) and two traffic signs, one an inverted triangle, the other a circle. How dull can you get?




Solid versus open shadows

In most of the pictures so far, the shadows that have been graphically important have been more or less solid black, but our rule of thumb is that they should only be as dark as they need to be in order to provide the necessary contrast or differentiation from the lighter areas. If you go for the darkest possible shadows at all times, you will often have problems with excessive contrast, and indeed with holding the mid-tones.


capidostra laundry




Washing line, Capodistria



These shadows are very open, but once again, they live up to the definition canvassed above: the picture would be completely different, and possibly non-existent, without them. They break up the otherwise extremely dull and unbalanced white wall on the right; they add a lot of interest to the wall that fills much of the lower half of the picture; and they conceal a certain amount of dirt and decay in the foreground that might otherwise be distracting.

Better still, they throw the hand-coloured washing into bright relief, and the descending diagonal of the shadows is a nice counterpoint to the ascending diagonal of the washing line. Of course these interpretations of 'ascending' and 'descending' are probably culturally specific, based on writing left-to-right -- but even in Hebrew, graphs are seldom reversed from the Cartesian convention that left is minus, right is plus, and down is minus, up is plus.

Something we have often noticed is that shadows have more impact and apparent separation in sepia-toned images; some old postcards and book illustrations show this even more clearly than this picture. Frances took the picture on 6x9cm HP5 Plus using her Alpa 12 SWA. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned in a home-made sulphide bath, hand coloured with SpotPens.

Literal and figurative shadows

People often use shadows figuratively as well as literally: to be in someone's shadow, to cast a long shadow, to live under the shadow of something... When you're shooting shadows, it can be worth thinking about these expressions, especially for shots where you have plenty of planning time: in the studio, or revisiting a place you know well.


leica white + grain


Leica IIIa, 1936

The Leica itself casts a long shadow, figuratively, and Roger's first Leica (this one, which he bought in about 1970) has cast a long shadow over his life, too: here he is, almost half a century later, still using them. What he wanted, though, was a sort of dreamlike effect, which he achieved by putting our Dreamagon 90/4 onto our Nikon D70; turning up the ISO as far as it would go; then adding further texture via an Adobe Photoshop filter. The Dreamagon gives a unique soft-focus effect, with three-bladed flare on the highlights, as seen here.


Man with bottle and shadows, Beijing



Everyone was walking around him, ignoring him. It looked as if he was drowning his sorrows: sorrows are easy to come by in Beijing. Only when Roger stopped to take the picture did he realize how the poor fellow was surrounded with shadows, all seemingly closing in on him. Even the column againt which he squats, which is decorated with artificial flowers, seems to point a shadowy finger at him.

The counterpoint of the man walking stiffly down the steps is all the more poignant. He seems to be taking on the shadows, daring them to do their worst.

You can see Roger's shadow, holding his Alpa 12 WA with its 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon. He shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus on the unique Alpa 44x66mm format -- necessary because the 38mm Biogon won't cover much more.

We doidn't like Beijing much, but we did get a lot of good pictures there. Increasingly, we find this: we can really dislike somewhere, but still get good pictures, while being smitten with a place is no guarantee that we will get much in the way of images (though happily there are plenty of places, such as Pecs in Hungary, which we like and where we get good pictures). Another place we disliked, but got a disproportionately large number of good pictures, was on our only trip to Istanbul.

threatening shadows


Out of the shadows (Shadow as background)

In a sense, this is the opposite of the way we have described using shadows so far. Instead of a predominantly light area, or a range of mid-tones, against which the shadows make a dramatic shape, a shaft of light or a single spotlit subject stands out. Once again, though, it isn't the use of light and shade to create roundness; it's a lot closer to the true meaning of chiaroscuro (a paid module), in the strict sense of 'clear/obscured'.


altar thari


Altar, Thari monastery

We didn't have a spot meter with us; the brightness range was forbidding; and an iron grille kept us at least five or six feet (call it a metre and three-quarters) from the altar table. Roger therefore took a 'best guess' at the exposure -- and then bracketed wildly, +2 stops to -2 stops, with half stop rests. Extravagant? No. That's nine frames, a quarter of a roll. What's the picture worth to you? The price of a pint of beer? Because that's about what it cost. Actually, at least three of the brackets were usable; they merely had different moods. This picture, which was taken with a Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux, also appears in the free module on bracketing


cajun alley



Maison Acadienne


The 'Acadiens' were the 17th century French settlers in French North America of 'Acadia' -- and a lot of the first wave came from the area where we now live, near Loudun. In due course, after their migration to Louisiana and their partial assimilation into the mainstream of American life after the Louisiana Purchase, 'acadienne' was corrupted to 'cajun' -- so we can fairly say that we live in cajun country.

The shape of the shadows really attracted Roger, which is why he shot this picture, but it doesn't do to run it too big because the scene that is framed at the end of the alley is dull to the point of banality. If we were less scrupulous, perhaps we would use the wonders of Adobe Photoshop to 'drop in' an altogether more interesting scene, but somehow, this seems neither right nor worth the effort. If we thought it right, perhaps we could summon more enthusiasm for the effort of doing it.

Roger use the Leica M8 with 21/2.8 Kobalux (28mm equivalent on the M8) and was quite surprised at how well the sensor held the full brightness range; depending on your monitor, you may or may not see detail in all of the wooden roofing over the alleyway. This leads us quite neatly to the technical considerations, principally of exposure, that are involved in this branch of photography.

Technical considerations

Most of the time, a picture with strong shadows involves a long brightness range. This in turn requires careful exposure, at least with colour slides or digital imaging. Most negative films have considerable latitude for over-exposure, so the only important thing is to make sure that you give enough exposure to get detail in the shadows when and where you want it. You may of course want the shadows to block up solid, as they do in 'Wizard', above, but if you are shooting negative film, you can always discard the shadow detail at the printing stage, as noted in the picture of the roof at the Church of St. Martin.


The counsel of perfection in traditional photography is of course to use a spot meter and meter both the shadows and the highlights, but quite honestly, the you can usually get by with almost any other method of metering including plain old bracketing if you are uncertain. If you use an in-camera or hand-held reflective meter, favour the shadows if you want more shadow detail, or favour the highlights if you want the shadows to block up. By 'favour' we mean that when you take your reading, you should point your camera or meter towards the shadows if you want to favour them, or towards the highlights if you want to favour them.


Shadows, Poitiers


The dark backs of the two young men and the young woman are blocked solid, and look all the darker because of the rim-lighting, but their shadows are not all that dark and the shadows in the street in front of them are very open. Roger shot this with the same camera and lens as the Maison Acadienne, above, and is constantly surprised at the extent of the brightness range that the digital sensor of the M8 can hold. Of course, for this shot, he took a couple of preliminary shots (as 'Polaroids') to determine the exposure, then waited until the composition came together to his satisfaction.

poitiers shadows


With a digital camera, of course, you can use the exposure histogram to make sure that the exposure is right: it's generally a more reliable guide than the LCD preview monitor, though you shouldn't disdain this either.

An interesting aside is that although it might seem that contrasty lenses are best for pictures involving lots of shadows, this isn't necessarily the case. The way that flary lenses 'fill' the shadows is rarely a problem, unless you are shooting slides for projection. If you are printing conventionally or scanning, you can usually put the shadows exactly where you want them at this stage.


cross, goa



One other consideration about shooting shadows is that if you are shooting on a sunny day with a bright blue sky, the shadows are extremely blue. This is because the unshadowed areas are lit by daylight -- a mixture of skylight and sunlight -- with an approximate colour temperature of 5500-6000 Kelvin, while the shadows are effectively lit exclusively by skylight at 20,000 Kelvin or more. You can see this most clearly in snow, but it is always true. An immediate consequence is that yellow, orange or red filters in black and white, and even warming filters in colour (81-series) will darken shadows disproportionately; a point worth remembering whether you want to make the shadows lighter or darker in your picture.



Cross, Old Goa


The fractured shadow is the whole point of this picture, but Frances chose not to use a yellow filter because she judged that the shadow would be quite dark enough anyway. She took the picture in the days she was still using Nikkormats -- almost certainly a Nikkormat FT2, probably with a 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1. The film is Ilford XP2; the print is on Ilford Multigrade, very lightly toned in selenium.

When Roger scanned this print, he started to remove what he thought were dust spots -- then realized that actually, they are pock-marks in the whitewash, which has been generously (if not always carefully) applied for centuries.

The bottom line

Apart from the (easily overcome) technical considerations listed above, there really isn't much to think about: it's just a question of looking for pictures. We hope that this module will have inspired you to do exactly this, and that it may have given you a few more ideas and departure points for taking pictures, which is, after all, what photography is about.


palm shadows


Palm shadows, Goa

We differ significantly in our appreciation of this photograph. Frances loves it; Roger can't see why she took it, let alone why she likes it. This is an important point in all photography. Ultimately, you do it for yourself. Don't let yourself be persuaded on aesthetic matters -- but always try to learn all you can about technique. It's on Ilford SFX, exposed in a Nikkormat with a 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor and a red filter.


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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks