The Game of Light and Shadow

Hi folks!

Photography is about light. It literally means drawing with light. For this reason the light quality is the primary factor of getting a good photo. There are two scenarios that come into play: the indoor scenario where the light is controllable (say studio) and shooting outdoors. In the latter one the situation is completely different as we are talking about lots of sub-scenarios: morning sun, noon/afternoon, overcast sky with clearly defined clouds, continuous clouds with no clear boundaries, magic sunset, fog, sky after rain and so on. The quality of light gets influenced by many factors which proves to be quite a challenge for the artist. Actually some photographers first carefully check the weather forecast in a specific region prior to going out in the field. A little pre-work might really make the difference!

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When shooting outdoors it is very important to carefully observe the light quality and it’s “game”. What do I mean by this? Well, light can create many interesting and eye-pleasing effects. A known example are reflections. I’ve already written about this in several posts like Sunset and Reflections (2) or Unwanted Reflections (2). However in this article I would like to focus on how direct light combined with darkness/shadows (which is sometimes referred as “chiaroscuro”) act on the final result.

To dive into this I would first write a few words about the types of light that can be encountered from a directionality point of view. There are three main types:

  • front lighting: photographer is facing the subject and the sun (or other light source) is behind HIM. This can create great contrast when the subject is lit by sun and the background is dark (storm clouds). See the below picture for example.
  • back lighting: photographer is facing the subject and the sun is behind the SUBJECT. Many avoid this which in my opinion is a missed opportunity.
  • side lighting: sun is in either side of the frame. It’s an ideal setup for getting photos with volume, “3D” effect.

Of course on a cloudy day it’s more difficult to differentiate between these types as the clouds are diffusing the light making it uniformly spread across the landscape. Some people might call this “dull” however there are still many photographic opportunities especially if it has just rained. As a “bonus” comes the so called “magic light”. This is relatively rare but might happen at dusk or sunrise when the clouds are diffusing the sunlight in a curious way so everything is enveloped by a mild colourful veil. You might encounter this a few times per year and you need to have a good understanding of weather conditions to be able to “predict” it (maybe a weather forecast might be helpful). Or you just need to be lucky to be in the right place and at the right time (and with the right camera, why not?). As a caveat this magic light might last only a few minutes so if you want to immortalise it don’t hesitate. Grab the opportunity and get the best out of the moment!

In landscape photography (but not only) the direction of the light is one of first things to be observed when trying to find interesting subjects. It is necessary to watch this, yet not sufficient. The quality of light should be noticed as well. As you probably know this tends to be much better at sunrise or sunset (plus/minus 1-2 hours). During daytime and mostly at noon the sunlight is significantly harsher and the cast shadows are too pronounced. This doesn’t mean good light – shadow combinations cannot be obtained, yet that they are more rare. For example when the weather is cloudy and the sun rays find a hole in the sky the effect is incredible at any time of the day. Also in some situations (portraits) diffusers might be applied for softening the light (I personally don’t use them but I don’t do portraits often either). Or one could go and shoot in the forest, which is also recommended on rainy days.

Let’s get back to light types. A common myth is that backlight is “bad” and should be avoided. Completely incorrect in my opinion as there are many situations when by taking advantage of the sun position breathtaking photos can be obtained. See for example the below three pictures. Other good examples can be found in this post. Back lighting is ideal for photographing transparent or translucent objects and indeed the obtained effect can be stunning. Of course in some cases good light/shadow post-processing is required for getting the best out of the back-lighting scenario.













By carefully observing the light quality, light direction and angle and of course the surroundings a lot of interesting light-shadow combinations can be identified and captured on the sensor. Some possible ones are:

  • a spot (or spots) of light in a sea of shadow (see first picture below)
  • frame partially in shadow and partially lit by sun or by reflected sunlight (see second picture below)
  • sun rays pouring through cloud openings (as if God himself descends – see third picture below)
  • side light combined with mist and beautifully illuminating a landscape partially covered by shadows (fourth picture)
  • sun rays coming from behind trees, cliffs etc (see above picture with the sun)
  • “dark rays”, a more rare scenario when the sun is right behind a cloud. The edges of the cloud are incandescent and some darker colour stripes can be spotted going outside from cloud margins (see fifth picture below)

To get a better understanding of light I suggest you do this exercise: go on a walk through the city or outside without taking your camera (well, better keep it in your bag just in case you spot some magic light). Practice this at sunrise or 1-2 hours before sunset. All you need to do is notice how the light falls on certain objects and the effect it has on the landscape. From time to time change the walking direction, turn right, left, go back and so on. See how the light direction changes, try to observe all three light types. See the spots of light and the “chiaroscuro” effect on buildings or trees part covered by sun and part by shadow. See how the light reflected by glass falls on other buildings. It will be of much help and you will get a much better understanding of the light game. You’ll also have the occasion of enhancing attention to details, which is paramount in photography in general. Try to do this as often as possible and you’ll get amazed of how many interesting scenarios might exist.

This being said I will now let you watch the remaining images (below) hoping you’ll not only enjoy them but they will also be a good inspiration source for a better understanding of the light and shadow game.

Looking forward for your thoughts about the subject.

P. S. Check these posts too:

Meet the Ringflash (2)
Moonlight (2)
My View on Post-processing Photos. One Touch Editing vs. Extensive Editing
The Magic of Fog. Welcome to the Misty Mountains!
What Photography Means To Me (5)





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