Tyler’s Tips Episode 11: Shadows


Welcome to Tyler’s Tips. Today we’re going to be talking about shadows. Why do shadows matter? In my opinion, shadows are an excellent tool that we can use to engage our viewers a little bit more deeply. Turn up the volume on their engagement. The reason why is that the human brain loves to look at photos that have unanswered questions, or little blanks that need to be filled in. Our brains love to answer those little questions and fill in those blanks. Shadows are a great place where we can intentionally leave information out, so that our viewers’ subconscious brains have that little element to chew on when they’re looking at one of our photos. Some examples, here’s a product photo that I did that we were able to shadow up a lot. Most of the time, with product photos, we don’t put a lot of shadows in the photo, because they’re designed really to sell a product. It shows people what it is, but you want to show all the details.

                        In this case, we used shadows, which I think creates a more compelling image for sure, but also tells a little bit more of a story in a way. A little bit of an emotional side to what this piece of art feels like. This is a standing jewelry cabinet. It’s about five feet tall. I think those highlights at the top, combined with the shadows at the bottom, it exaggerates that beautiful shape, and it also gives our brains a little something to chew on. We know by looking at it that it’s all the same wood, but down at the bottom we’ve gotta fill in more details. It’s a more engaging image ultimately, helps hopefully to sell that product a little bit more effectively than a standard image.

                        Another example is this photograph. Which is a portrait of a portrait painter, and his portrait, which is kind of fun. What I chose to do here, was I put his face in shadow. As an atypical choice for a portrait, to put your subject in shadow like that, but in this case I think it works. For two reasons. One, I think it creates a little bit of mystery, in that you have to look, and really look at his face, and you can tell what he’s all about in this photo because there’s so much contextual information. He’s holding a paintbrush, he’s wearing a smock. The other thing that I think it really does is, the fact that he’s in shadow, and the subject of his portrait is brightly lit.

                        That contrast sets up a nice dynamic energy in the photo. That difference between the two people. If he were lit brightly the same as she’s lit, I think this photo would be less compelling. It would be more difficult to distinguish immediately what’s going on. In this case, because there’s a big difference between the look of the two human forms in this image, it creates an interesting dynamic energy there between his subject and the painter.

                        There you are. A little bit of an atypical use of shadow in a portrait, but I think kind of an interesting example. Last example I’ll use is more typical. This is where I just wanted really dark shadows to simplify this image. I wanted to really highlight just the single line of her form. Her legs, I wanted to just show that line. I wanted to try to completely make the other half of her leg disappear. So, super dark shadows, and the way that I created those is using a technique called negative fill. You guys have all heard of fill light, I’m sure, or fill flash. As you’re using a light source or reflecting light, to fill in the shadows, to add more light there, the opposite is called negative fill. What we do in that case, is we put material that’s black or dark just outside the frame on the side of the image where you want to darken up the shadows. That way the light bouncing around hits that dark material and doesn’t bounce back into the frame, so you get darker shadows.

                        Here’s a behind the scenes photo showing how that works. You can see it’s really simple in this case, we just used black pieces of foam core along the wall. It was really effective, it made those shadows a lot darker. Coming back to the original image, I did darken this up a bit in post. I made those shadows even darker to make it more contrasty.

                        There you are. Shadows as a tool to create a little unanswered question, some blanks for the human mind to fill in when your viewer is looking at your photo, can really amp up your story, and make ultimately a more engaging image. So next time you’re out there shooting, think about how you can incorporate shadows into your photo in such a way that it really helps your story. If you are using shadows, don’t be afraid to make them pretty dark, and leave that question unanswered. It might make for a more compelling image.

                        I hope this was a useful tip, as always, thank you for your time, if you have any ideas or questions you’d like me to discuss, send me an email or put a comment in the field below, and I’ll work it into a future episode. Until next time.