Pinnochio nose. Downtown LA, 2015

A fun creative photography challenge: shadow photography.

Why shadows?

Contact sheet: Pinnochio nose / Downtown La, 2015

Why shoot shadows?

For me, I like to shoot shadows because they are more mysterious, and this more open-ended to interpretation, and thus more interesting to look at.

I’m a huge fan of film noir cinema, and they employ heavy use of shadows to add more drama, mystery, and danger to the movies and scenes.

1. Shoot shadows that are on the edges of a wall or surface

Pinnochio nose. Downtown LA, 2015

If you want a more dramatic shadow, place the shadow at the edge of a surface or a wall. This will make the shadow appear longer. This is what I did for my “Pinnochio nose” street photograph above. I saw a woman and the shadow behind her during sunset. I shot a bunch of photos by “working the scene”— changing my framing, composition, and distance.

Contact sheet: Pinnochio nose / Downtown La, 2015

Why does the photograph work, and why is it interesting?

It is all about the “pinnochio nose” shadow. Pinnochio nose is a symbol of lying. Thus, it begs the question to the viewer:

“What is the woman hiding or lying about?”

Lesson: Use shadows to make more open-ended photos, which allow the viewer to pose their own questions about a photograph, and thus become more engaged and mentally invested in order to analyze and come up with their own story in a photo.

2. -1 or -2 exposure compensation

To make more dramatic shadow photos, put your subject into the bright light, and shoot with -1 or -2 exposure compensation (or even some cameras, -3 exposure compensation). I usually do -1 exposure compensation on my Ricoh GR II, shooting in program mode.

Note how I worked the scene, to get the man to have the dramatic light on his face.

Why is this photograph interesting?

Golden triangle analysis for Downtown LA, side face tattoo.

First of all, it follows the Golden triangle composition. I didn’t intend to do this when I was shooting it, but I discovered the composition afterwards. The Golden triangle compositional grid shows me: the photograph has good balance, proportions, and good placement of his eye (at the intersection of the two diagonal lines).

Downtown LA side shadow tattoo abstract. Note that visually, he doesn’t have a neck or the top of his head — which makes the photograph more mysterious.

Secondly, by using -1 exposure compensation, the shadows causes his neck and the top of his head to disappear — making the photograph more mysterious.

Lastly, I like the side profile of his face, which reminds me of traditional portrait/paintings. In real life, you don’t see the side profile of someone’s face. You normally look at people face-on/head-on. Therefore, the perspective of his face is novel (humans like novelty of visual view/perspective).

3. Multiple light bulbs

Shadow selfie. Boston, 2018

This is a selfie I shot with the light source being a chandelier with multiple light bulbs. This allowed my selfie shadow to have multiple layers.

4. Tree shadows

Tree shadow. Boston, 2018

Get the shadows of trees and tree branches against a building, or on the ground. The pattern of the shadows of tree branches are fascinating to look at.

Tip: Shoot shadows at sunset, to have longer and more dramatic shadows.

5. Shadows to decapitate heads

Shadow on man’s face. Lisbon, 2018

Shoot people’s faces in the shadows, to decapitate them (make them headless) for more mystery in your photos.

Remember, try to do this with -1 or -2 exposure compensation.

6. Curved shadows with portraits

Portrait of Cindy with curved shadows. Lisbon, 2018

Try to get curved shadows on the face of your subject, to make a more dramatic portrait.

iPad and Procreate shadow abstract of curved shadows in Cindy’s face.

7. Shadow selfie and layers

Cindy, selfie shadow. Boston, 2018

Get a selfie shadow of yourself, with layers. Get your shadow selfie somewhere in the background, with some people closer to you (foreground) and the background.

8. Full-body shadow selfie cutout

Sunset shadow selfie. London, 2018

When it is sunset, shoot a full body selfie of yourself. Experiment putting your selfie shadow off-center to create a more dynamic composition.

9. Common object shadows at home

Chair shadow. Lisbon, 2018

Shoot shadows at home. Shoot shadows on chairs, of common everyday objects.

Key and shadow. Marseille, 2017

Good inspiration for a photographer who made great photos at home include Edward Weston and Andre Kertesz.

10. Shadow of your own hand

Hand and selfie shadow. Blue and red. Marseille, 2017

When you have nothing to photograph, just stick out your own hand, and shoot a shadow of your hand. Put your hand shadow on different subjects, on different backgrounds, and spread your fingers to show all your fingers in the shadow.

11. Put your shadow selfie on an “X” or some object

Selfie with X on my shadow, Istanbul street photo, 2013

When you’re out shooting street photography, have a fun game, and place your shadows on crosses, X’s, or other intersections.

12. Shadows to highlight an eye

Eyes are the windows to the soul”.

I kept clicking until he looked at me.

Use shadows to highlight the eyes of your subject, to add more intensity and focus on the eye of your subject.

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

13. Abstract shadow photos

Curved red curtain and shadow. Marseille, 2017. Shot in program mode on Ricoh gr ii

Shoot abstract photos with shadows in the frame.

14. Shadow as “cherry on top”

Girl with pigeon shadow. Paris, 2011. The cherry on top is the pigeon shadow in the background.

The “cherry on top” is a small detail in a photograph which transforms a good photo into a great photo.

To me, the “cherry on top” of the above photo is the shadow of the bird in flight, which is juxtaposed with the little girl playing with a pinwheel toy.

Assignment: Try to make a photograph where the shadow of the photograph is the small detail which makes the photograph tell a better, more open-ended story.

15. Burn/darken the faces of your subjects

Eric Kim / Tokyo, 2012 (note the strong graphical elements and diagonal leading-line)

For this photograph, I used the “burn” tool to darken the face of my subject. This makes the man seem “faceless”, thus makes the photograph more mysterious.

16. Flip the photograph

“Shadows” – You can shoot street photography anywhere with a shadow

Shoot a photograph of your subject with the shadow filling the frame. Then experiment by “flipping the photograph” (use the rotate tool in Lightroom or the program of your choice).

17. Shadows shot with a film camera

“Leaving” – Santa Monica 3rd Street. Shot with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder. Gotta love the light and shadows.

Try shooting a shadow on film. Shooting a shadow on film will render the shadows in a more novel way than in a digital photograph. If you’re new to film photography, pick up a copy of FILM NOTES.

18. Simple background, filling the frame with alternating shadows

Cindy and shadow. Lisbon, 2018

Shoot shadows against a simple white background, with shadows filling the frame.

Man and shadow. Marseille. 2017. Shot at -1 exposure compensation

When I say “alternating shadows” I mean: have some parts of the frame filled with shadow, but also have some negative white space in-between the shadows.

19. Separate your selfie shadow with other shadows

Red and Green shadows selfie. Playground in Lisbon, 2018

Make sure your shadow doesn’t overlap with other shadows. Add some negative space in-between the shadows in a scene. This will allow your shadow to have better “figure to ground”.

20. Put your selfie shadow on top of your subject

My selfie shadow on top of Cindy’s body.

By putting your selfie shadow in the photograph, you put your own soul in your photo. It is a reminder that you were there.

Also, to your viewer, it breaks the “third wall”, which reminds your viewer:

The photographer is a real human being, and was there when he/she made the photo.


Shadow selfie, small box. Uji, 2018

Shooting shadows are fun, and a good photography assignment.

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