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Hard light is much maligned in portrait photography, for various reasons. But what do you do when you can’t avoid it? Embrace it… in the form of shadow photography. It’s a thing, and it’s addictive!
Those of us who love taking photos of people, tend to think of hard light as the enemy. We steer away from it because it’s challenging to render in a way that flatters our subject, and tends to create distraction with its harsh lines.
However, avoiding it limits us and frustrates us in equal measure. Although challenging, hard light gives us incredible drama and interest in the form of striking shadows and patterns, and if we use it mindfully and with purpose in our compositions, it can be incredibly creative!
Our talented Click Love Grow graduates have been experimenting with shadow photography. Such are their beauty, the light could be considered the subject. So we asked Merissa Wakefield, Megan O’Donnell and Kailey Nagymarosi to share their tips for shadow photography.
When shooting in undiffused midday sun, try and have the light behind you to ensure your subject is evenly lit. Also, avoid the dreaded squinty eye photo by encouring them to look away from the sun.
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How often do we head to the playground and not even bother taking photos because of the horrendous harsh light?
Instead of lamenting the lack of open shade and soft light, make the most of it by looking for the shadows it creates and capturing them intentionally.
The first shadow photo was taken under some play equipment.
I shot these at f/2.2 and exposed for the highlights.
Look for moments where your subject is creating the shadow, and compose for the shadows. Merissa says in these instances she will sometimes focus on the shadow, leaving her daughter a little bit out of focus.
Also, place your subject with the light behind them so that the shadow falls in front of them, to make the most of it in your composition.
A hotspot is an area of blown highlights and you want to avoid them on skin at all costs! For that reason, check that the light is falling evenly on your subject, especially their face. If you see hotspots, slightly adjust your position, or your subject’s, until you see it even out.
Choose your settings to expose for the brightest highlight in the scene. Normally I love shooting very wide open, but for shadow photography I’m more inclined to shoot at f/3.5 because hard light lends itself really well to a sharply focused shot.
When out and about in your neighborhood, keep your eyes peeled for well defined shadows. In particular, patterns created by trees on fences, garages, walls and other buildings can take an otherwise ordinary scene to a whole other level.
Take note of the time and then try and head back at that time with your kids and place them somewhere in the shot. Expose for the highlights so they’re not blown out.
At the beginning and end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, keep your eye out for shadow photo opportunities indoors. At these times it will filter through your windows and doors and bounce off objects to create gorgeous light patterns.
Those daggy security doors are amazing for creating light patterns!
For hard light photos you don’t need to expose light and bright – make the most of the shadow play by exposing for the highlights. In light situations like these below, exposing for the highlights will give you a low key shot. The bonus is the depth and drama it will lend to your shots.
Take lots of shots experimenting with different framing, perspectives and positions in relation to the light. Keep shooting until you achieve the expression or emotion you’re hoping to capture, or until you’ve made the best of the light pattern.
Another way to use hard light creatively is to look for rainbow light patterns. These form when light moves through a coloured transparent surface such as stained glass windows and other coloured glass.
Kailey created this “rainbow mask” effect by placing a glass prism in front of window light. She adjusted it’s position until the coloured light patterns it created fell onto her son’s face in a manner she was happy with.
Another way to create your own rainbow reflections is by holding a CD (remember those?!) and angling it in different ways to refract the light and watch rainbow light patterns appear as it reflects off nearby surfaces.
See the beauty in the most ordinary of scenes by looking for little pockets of beautiful light and well defined shadow lines.
The light pocket found here is beautiful and dramatic. In these instances, expose for the subject.
If you’ve found the light before your subject, get your settings ready before bringing them in. Put your hand into the spotlight and meter for it, then bring your subject in so you’re ready to shoot immediately.
Related: How To Meter
Kailey says ever since she took the Click Love Grow Advanced Photography Course she has become so much more aware of light and shadow in her everyday moments. She’s drawn to a ray of light beaming through a window illuminating specks of dust, or the patterns of shadow cast on the wall.
Kailey loves to involve her little ones in the creative process, and tends to follow the moments they create in their play. Her only control of her sessions comes from exploring her space, watching for where the light lands and encouraging her kids to play there.
Encourage role playing games, for example becoming zebras and cheetahs. Play hide and seek in harsh light under a blanket… watch how the light sneaks in. For these images, the light was to the left, and Kailey climbed under the blanket, using her body to hold it up tent like.
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Expose for their skin, use a minimum shutter speed of 1/300 to freeze the motion of child’s play, and don’t fear a high ISO!
Related: Better Results at High ISO
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