Studio Techniques: Beautiful Shadows

Shadows must be the most talked about thing online when you look at critiques. Often, the shadows are indeed the most difficult thing to capture, so how can we make sure that the shadows always work out? Well, we can’t. There is no 100% foolproof setup that will always work, but there are some things that we can remember and that will actually make it a lot easier to create stunning images with shadows.

I’ve heard many remarks about shadows in images. The funniest, however, I got recently on Facebook when I posted an image with hard shadows on the wall behind the model: “Love the shot, but…are shadows allowed again? Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but just checking.”

This cracked me up. “Are shadows allowed again?” I see images from Lucky Luke chasing his shadow away with the words, “Hey man, you’re not allowed and I can outrun you.” Well, Lucky Luke is probably the only man on the planet that can do this. Dear readers, shadows are a part of our everyday life. Whether outside in the sun or inside, shadow play is always seen. Imagine a world without shadows. We have one option, and that is total darkness (well, actually that could be considered as one big shadow).

First Things First

Let’s look at shadows and what they mean for an image. In all fairness, we don’t have to look very hard. Shadows create depth (three-dimensionality), but they also create mood and they make sure you see that a model is not just pasted into a background, but is really a part of the scene. For example, take away the shadows in a shot on a white background and you’ll see a model floating in space. Now, add the shadows again and there you go, the model is standing on a white background.


The Soul Of  a Shot

But, of course there’s more. I dare say that, for me, the shadows are the soul of a shot; however, there are many ways to use the shadows. In the following shots, I’ll take you through some of them very quickly.

The drop shadow
This is the shadow that a lot of people are afraid of, and in some cases, you really don’t want this shadow. But, in a lot of cases, this is the shadow that makes a picture go from “Nah, not interesting” to “Wow! That shot rocks.” Learn to look for the angles, but most of all, learn to interact with the shadow. For me, the best shots with drop shadows are those where the shadow does something for the image or, in other words, really enhances the image.

For this shot, I used a slightly angled strip light with a grid aimed slightly away from the model, creating a nice dark area on the wall and a nice light falloff on the wall behind the model. By changing the angle, you can control the way the light behaves. 


Drop shadows can also be softer, of course. At bottom left, I used an Elinchrom Deep Octa softbox from a distance to create a nice, soft light quality, but still with a nice defined drop shadow.


I love drop shadows when I’m shooting with bright backgrounds, as you can see in the shot at bottom right. For this kind of shot, it’s important that you place the strobe from a distance because you want an evenly lit background and a harsh shadow. So, you use something like a wide reflector, or just an open reflector, or even a strobe without any modifier.


Using Shadows to Hide Something

These models have nothing to hide, but imagine a plus-sized model who wants to look a bit slimmer in the image. Using shadows the correct way can really enhance the body and make a model love you as her photographer. I have to add that it can also go terribly wrong. So, do practice this with models before you shout, “Oh, I can make you look great!” 

In this shot, I used a reflector with a grid (in this case, the Elinchrom Maxi Lite) and aimed it at the model from the back. This way, you can use the drop shadow to hide the front of the model. Here, there was nothing to hide, but this can be an incredibly effective way to hide certain body features you don’t want in the shot.


In this next shot, it’s not really the shadows, but the black of the clothing in combination with the shadows and the pose that can be very effective in hiding or masking something. For this shot, a strip light with a grid was used, angled away from the wall. I used a light meter to measure the background (with reflective metering) to make sure there still was some detail in the background, but not too much.


Shaping With Shadows

In the following shot, you can see the use of the shadows to shape the light on the model’s face. This is something I absolutely love to do, and that gives a real 3D look to the model. It’s also a very powerful method to use with glamour or figure photography, and something that’s often used with maternity shoots.

In this shot, two strip lights were used—one without a grid for the accent light, and one with a grid for the main light.