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Lighting with Shadows

Creative Cow Magazine: Lighting with Shadows
A Creative Cow Magazine Extra

Creative Cow Magazine: Lighting with Shadows
Rick Wise Rick Wise
Oakland, California US
© All rights reserved.

Article Focus: Lighting expert and instructor Rick Wise draws on decades of experience to illustrate how shadows can be the most important part of how a scene is lit. Learn how to control the direction and quality of your lighting design to add texture, dimension, and force to your images.

There are three keys to good lighting. Learn how to see and use these keys, and you will begin to light well – though learning to see as well as how to shape light is a lifelong journey, one that continues to inform and enrich your art and craft as a cinematographer/videographer/photographer up to the day you cease to be.

The first key to lighting is shadows. The second key is intensity. The third key is color. In this article, we will deal with the first key: shadows

Much of lighting is about shadows. Shadows give an image dimension. They add texture. They create force lines. They illuminate with their darkness. When there are no shadows, the image is flat, two-dimensional.

Shadows can come from light striking the object itself – the shadow of a nose, of the rim of a hat, of a tree, of a ball, etc.

Almost no shadow   Hard shadow
Baseball with almost no shadow; sun is directly behind the camera   Same baseball with shadow; sun is ¾ behind the ball though rather high in the sky. How can you tell the sun is high? (1)

Sometimes shadows can come from light striking some other objects(s) and throwing a shadow onto the subject. Frequently that added shadow adds dimension, texture, and usually some visual interest.


Flat lighting   Shadows add depth
Stucco wall; some texture from sun’s angle   Similar stucco wall, with shadows of tree branches -- some sharper than others

Any time a photograph in a magazine or newspaper grabs your attention, take a close look at the shadow(s). Try to figure out, where was the key light? Do you like the result? Do you think the picture would be stronger if the key were moved – to where?

You can always figure out where they key-light is coming from by looking at the direction of the shadow and then looking in the opposite direction. With your mind’s eye, project off the page to where the key must have been placed, whether the natural sun, or a DP’s light(s).

Watch for how a DP arranges lighting

Directional lighting

Lighting emphasizes direction

Lighting from below

We take it for granted that early in the morning, and late in the afternoon, the shadows are long, because the key-light, the sun, is low in the sky. If you live in Alaska, or northern Scandinavia or Russia, most of the summer the shadows will be long all day, because there the sun never rises high above the horizon. That’s one of the reasons it is so easy to shoot spectacular pictures in Alaska – long shadows.

At the other extreme, high noon at more Southern locations, or at the equator itself, the sun seems to hover directly overhead forever. This sun position produces very short shadows and it is much more difficult to take successful pictures in this light.

The more you play with light, the more you will become comfortable with deciding where you want to place your shadows, and why. When shooting with available light, you’ll pick times and places where the play of shadows enhances your story. When shooting indoors with lighting units, you will learn how to place your lighting units so that, again, the shadows enhance the story.

When you are starting out, you will probably have a tendency to place the key light close to the camera. Every time you time you do that, stop and look at what you are doing to the shadows: you are killing them, and so depriving your image of the life and texture and impact it could have. As a rule of thumb, the only time you would place a light next to or near the camera is when you are adding fill light or you want very, very little shadow.

There are rare times, of course, when you do NOT want shadows, time when you want a flat field, when you do not want a sense of texture. That happens when you are photographing or filming someone with more wrinkles on her/his face than you (or the subject) desire.

Another of those time that happens is when you want to photograph paintings. Unless you are trying to emphasize the painter’s thick brush strokes, you want very flat lighting so that only the artist’s original vision is clear, not some new highlights and shadows you impose from your own imagination.


“Water Series 1” by Deborah Kashinsky
“Water Series 1” by Deborah Kashinsky. Click image for larger.

In such a case you would place a light to the left and another identical one to the right so that any glare skips off camera.

Finally, a third example of when you want shadowless, flat, even lighting occurs when you film against green/blue screen. No matter what contrast you build into lighting the foreground people and objects, the screen itself must be evenly and flatly lit so that in post you can pull a clean key.

In general, it is rare to take a photograph or shoot a scene where absolutely flat, shadowless lighting is a strength. In the following photograph, there are no shadows caused by the sun, yet still the picture vibrates. Why? (2)

The strength of shadowless lighting

And, once in a while we want to film with flat, shadowless lighting. One-Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, is an example where such lighting fits perfectly into the story line to emphasize the protagonist’s bleak, lonely, emotion-starved life.

Finally, we think about the shadow quality: is the shadow sharp, or is it soft?

Hard shadow Soft shadow
Hard shadow
Soft shadow

VERY soft shadow
Very soft shadow


What makes a shadow soft? Adding fill light will lighten the shadow, but the edges will remain hard. The answer, of course, is to put some sort of diffusion between the key and the object. Usually, putting diffusion on the barn doors of a lighting unit will soften the image only a little bit. What really creates softness is to place the diffusion close to the object. Then the light wraps around to blur the distinction between deep shadow and bright light.

You can, however, transform a large, raw lighting unit into a soft light by simply moving it very close to the object. It’s above all the relative size of the lighting surface to the object that makes the light wrap – or else cast hard, sharp shadows. When the lighting surface (either the front of a large unit, or a piece of diffusion) is large in relation to the object, the light wraps. When the surface size is small in relation to the object, the shadows are sharp and hard.

You can see this in play every morning or evening: observe the shadow of a telephone pole or flagpole on the ground. Close to the base, where the pole meets the earth, the shadow is sharp and deep. Out at the tip, the shadow is blurred and much lighter. If you place your eye on the ground at the tip, you will see that the sun peeps around both sides of the pole, wrapping light into the shadow: it has become relatively large in relation to the object.

But when you place your eye at the base, you can not see the sun at all. Here the shadow is sharp, hard. Note, there is one other factor at work here: the shadow is less dense near the tip because the sun wraps, but also because at the tip the entire sky is acting as a fill-light, while at the base only ½ the sky can reach the shadow to fill it in.

There is an obvious corollary to the above: if you take a very soft light, and place it far away from the object, it becomes a hard light, casting sharp, clean shadows.

So there you have it: Look to the shadows. What is their direction? Do you like the direction? Are they hard? Are they soft? Do you like the softness or hardness? These thoughts form the first key to good lighting.

Visual Effects

Also in Creative Cow Magazine's
"Visual Effects" issue:

  • Pushing the Limits on "Pushing Daisies"
  • The Importance of Invisible Effects
  • The Art and Science of Optical Flow
  • Improvising Effects
  • And much more!

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(1) How can you tell the sun is high in the sky? The shadow is short. Were the sun low, near the horizon, the shadow would be long. (Back)
(2) Why does this picture vibrate in spite of no shadows? Color – the pomegranate against the young grapes leaves; Shallow depth of field – the out-of-focus background becomes a short of soft “shadow”; Texture and shape – the round pomegranate against the dried bamboo and fresh young leaves forms a contrast of textures. (Back)



by pete pearce
nice job on the explanations.
i will send some of my students here to read.
Lighting with Shadows
by Charles Xa
Fantastic read- really nice intro to the basics of lighting, would love some more articles that go further in depth / showing some tips and tricks to getting better light and showing different setups etc.

Lighting with Shadows
by Erik Waluska
Great article! Very good explanation and examples. Thank you.

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