The Art and Purpose of Shadow Photography

Amy Cobb feels most at home behind a keyboard or a snapping shutter. She’s a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, writes on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she’s worked on pinning down the best photography degree program in the country. When not writing, Amy is doing her best not to torture the flora in her square foot gardening plots and she’s always at the beck and call of her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.

There’s a scene in the 2002 horror movie The Ring that I really like, despite its probably being not that memorable. Near the beginning, teenager Katie (Amber Tamblyn) is having a sleepover with her friend, named (I swear I’m not making this up), Rebecca Black (Rachel Bella).At one point Katiewalks into the kitchen while distractedly talking on the phone and opens the refrigerator. Katie walks away but the shot stays with the fridge door that swinging shut. It lingers for just a moment on the hall beyond the fridge before cutting back to the characters.

What I like about that simple, throwaway scene is the way it takes advantage of the viewer’s expectations of a scare to be waiting behind the closing fridge and the use of off-camera space as a narrative tool. In this case that tool is being used to raise suspense. The same principle can be applied to shadow photography- the incorporation of an unexpected and often avoided facet of photographyas an effective tool: shadows.

There are a great number of reasons to take shots incorporating shadows and a great number of ways in which clever use of shadows and light can make a photo. Those include:

Shadows as a Guide and Story-Teller

Shadow Flick Ball

As seen above, shadow work can be employed to both draw the eye and as an interactive and often playful way to interact with the photo’s subject. That’s especially true of creepy or funny images- I have a friend who makes a pretty good living taking shots of peoples’ shadows clubbing, beating, shooting and stabbing each other for the covers of detective dime novels, video and board games, once a straight-to-DVD movie, etc.

Shoot at Sunrise or Sunset

For the most dramatic outdoor shadow photos, shoot at sunrise or sunset. If dramatic is what you’re going for.

Shadow Yoga

Creating Contrast

The creation of contrast here applies both to literal light-shadow contrast between the object being photographed and the shadow it’s casting and more symbolic contrast. Regarding the image below, for instance, the figure casting this shadow is a friend of mine holding the front half of an old recorder he’d found in a box of youthful relics. For reasons too complex to explain here, he is dressed in ridiculous, baggy clothing, sporting a really strange hairdo and stroking his goatee in a silly way. I like this shot both because I managed to obscure my own shadow and because my harmless friend with his childhood treasure has been rendered a menacing, looming figure who appears to be holding some sort of weapon.

Shadow Knife


I am a big fan of using shadows as a negative reflection of a subject when it seems to anchor that subject to the image. I’m not alone in my preference for that sort of shot- for whatever reasons it’s an aesthetically satisfying convention. I like the following shot because it seems to blur the distinction between shadow and reflection.

Reflection Walk

Unexpected Color

Color obviously plays a huge roll in all photography, including shadow photography of course (even in the composition of black and white shots), but less oftendo shadow-shooters consider the use of color in the shadows themselves. Shoot something in the shadow of a colored jar or vase or a clear one filled with dyed liquid to create an off-camera filter. And any translucent, colored material- balloons, umbrellas, etc.- can add a vibrant and unexpected splash of color to an image. The best advice anyone can give, though? Experiment on your own. Shadow shooting, like any other subclass of photography, should be explored and played with.


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