Our photographic vision is a reflection of what draws us to nature, of the beauty we see in it, and for each of us it is different. My vision is defined primarily by light, and by the way it interacts with the world. There is a specific kind of light I find irresistibly beautiful, I call it shadow light, and the pull it exerts on me has defined my vision of the world. Here I share with you my thoughts on how to photograph light, and shadow light in particular.
The natural world is blessed with different types of light, all of them beautiful in their own right, which evoke different kinds of emotions: Soft, gentle pastel colors on a foggy morning as the sun gently breaks through; a burning sunrise or sunset sky and the intense, warm light reflected off the clouds onto the landscape below; white, puffy clouds against a blue sky on a happy summer’s day; a virtually monochrome, grey and cloudy afternoon.
And then there is shadow light: Its defining feature is the profoundly rich interplay of light and dark and, due to the tension between opposites, the strong associative emotions it can evoke, such as warm and cold, hope and gloom, friendly and menacing. Our eyes are exquisitely sensitive to it. Just the slightest increase in the amount of spot light on a tree against a dark background can be immensely powerful. This kind of light also lends itself very well to the processing workflow I use. Processing for contrast can work wonders with shadow light.
Below I give examples of what I consider to be shadow light, the scenarios where you can expect to find it and how best to photograph shadow light. I hope this article will inspire you to search for shadow light and capture it at its most evocative.
What qualifies as shadow light?
The defining characteristic of shadow light is the interplay of light and dark areas. Usually this would come in the form of spot light against an otherwise dark background or, as happens during sunrise or sunset, the illuminated features of a landscape contrasting against those parts which are in the shade.
However, in my view the most beautiful light happens in the semi shadows, in the area where the light moves in and the shadow creeps away or vice versa. This is where the real magic happens.
A powerful example of spot light in a mountain setting and how it evokes contrasting emotions such as hope/gloom, warm/cold, inviting/menacing. The late afternoon sun breaks through thick, every changing cloud cover in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. These scenes are difficult to photograph. They happen rarely and last only for a very short while. You need patience, but you also need to react fast and be willing to take many images in rapid succession as the light comes and goes on the mountain face. Most images won’t work, but among them you may find a treasure.
An example of the last light of day touching parts of the landscape while the remainder is already in the shade. This is an image of the endless golden coastal dunes in Namibia as the sun is about to set. Shadow light is powerful not only in the emotions it evokes but also in how it emphasizes or even creates shapes and textures. A common, and important, feature of shadow light is the glow associated with the lit areas, a natural consequence of the contrast of light against dark. The lit dune ridges are just about to fall into shade, and are graced by that beautiful soft light you find only in the semi shadows, where the light fades away and the shadow creeps in.
An image graced by the glorious light you find only in semi shadows, where the light is about to fade away into darkness. Ripples of sand on the crest of a sand dune in Namibia catch the last light of day as it is about to fade away, while wind blown sand further down glows golden as it is lifted into the light.
Shadow light is not only for landscapes, it can work beautifully with animals. Besides defining textures and shapes, it can give the animal character, perhaps even convey the emotion it felt at the time you took the image. When photographing wildlife, I love to capture and portray the more artistic and subtle aspects: Soft afternoon light silhouettes an elephant’s beautifully textured face in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.
When is the best time to capture shadow light?
When you deal with spot light it can be any part of the day. On a dark, gloomy day, the light breaking through to illuminate the landscape is very powerful whether it is in the early morning or the middle of the day.
This image of spot light on the majestic peaks of the Cuernos del Paine in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, was taken later in the day, well after sunrise. It is the contrast of this light with the darker, surrounding areas that make this image work. It is the constant interplay of ever changing cloud formations and light that make photography so special in Patagonia!
When capturing scenes where the light fades into the shadow or vice versa, the times to do so are sunrise and early morning or late afternoon and sunset. At these times the light is soft and the magic happens in the semi shadows. Later in the morning or earlier in the afternoon, the transition between shadow and light is more abrupt and the semi shadows are lost.
When photographing dunes, I always pay attention to the base since this is where textures, shapes and lines interact beautifully. Note the shadow light on the right hand side as the light moves in and the shadows creep away. The light is particularly soft in the semi shadows where the light is just about to fill in the shadows. In this image, two lone trees live on the edge of a giant dune which rises sharply above them in Namibia’s Sossusvlei region. In fact, one of the trees is actually buried in the dune’s sand!
What should I keep in mind when capturing shadow light?
To capture the most powerful images you need to be acutely aware of how the light interacts with the landscape. Always be on the lookout for scenes where light and shadow interact. You also need to keep in mind that with some subtle contrast work in post processing you can enhance the interplay between light and shadow.
When I saw this scene of two icebergs in East Greenland’s Scoresby Sund, I immediately saw its potential, since I knew that a little increase in contrast in post processing would bring out the amazing interplay between light and shadow that was apparent here. Two lone icebergs are silhouetted against intensely golden waters and haze, while a distant mountain already has receded into the night.
When you take images of spotlight on a mountain face, it is best to take images in rapid succession when the light starts moving across areas of interest. Just as happens when photographing wildlife, if you wait to press the shutter only at the right moment, it already is too late, since the scene you noticed most likely has passed. Referring to the first photograph in this article, I selected it from a series of many exposures I took. In this particular image, the light was at the perfect spot, and it was there for less than 5 seconds before it disappeared and never graced the mountain face again in the same way.
When it comes to late afternoon light, the most powerful moments happen when the illuminated parts of the landscape are just about to slide into the shade. These moments last only for a short while, especially in the early morning and late afternoon since the light changes rapidly as the sun moves through the sky. You need to learn to anticipate these moments and capture them as soon as they materialize.
This image of the base of a giant red sand dune in Namibia’s Sossusvlei region, touched by the last light of day as the shadows creep in, is a good example of the mesmerizing beauty of semi shadows . Always look for those parts which are in the twilight between light and shadow.
What lens should I use?
I prefer using the telephoto lens since with it I can identify and isolate parts of the scene where the interplay of shadow light is most compelling. Please feel free to read my article where I explain why I think the telephoto is an ideal lens for landscape photography.
One of my personal favourites, this image of an iceberg in Greenland’s awe inspiring Scoresby Sound contrasting against the first light of day painting a distant mountain range, would have been completely lost had I used a wide angle lens. With the telephoto I can identify and isolate parts of the scene where the interplay of shadow light is most compelling.
Wide angle lenses have such an expansive field of view that the details of the interplay of shadow light with the landscape can easily be lost in the vastness of the scene. That being said, there are several cases where a wide angle lens can work beautifully, given the right conditions. This image of the endless mountain ranges in Canada’s Yukon territory, was taken with a wide angle lens from a float plane which took us to our camp site deep in the amazing Peel Watershed.
I hope this short introduction to shadow light has given you some appreciation of the power of the interplay between light and shadow and I hope it encourages you to go out there and seek the magic that happens every day! Shadow light can be subtle and it takes practice to recognize it, but once you have developed a feel for it, it will greatly enrich your photographic experience and the quality of your images!
For a considerably more in depth treatment of composition, please have a look at our in depth e-book which discusses the art of composition and the principles of aesthetics. In particular, I explain the psychology behind aesthetics and image design, also known as visual thinking, which will enable and empower you to express your photographic vision powerfully and effectively.
Good luck and see you out there in our planet’s natural beauty!
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