Think Different: Fear Not the Shadows!

by guest author and photographer Ted Dayton

If you want to add depth and drama to your images, look for ways to shoot toward the light, where the pros shoot. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a snapshot shooter anymore, so act like it! No more pictures with the sun at your back. Ever. Unless it looks really good, of course, but it won’t happen often. Learn to shoot in lighting conditions that confuse your camera’s meter. Get accustomed to throwing away most of these pictures and call it progress. Learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Embrace those shadows!

If you’re not sure what I mean by ‘shooting into the shadows’, just turn on the TV or queue up a DVD. You will see scenes that are back-lit, rim-lit, hair-lit. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes subtle. And it nearly always makes the picture better, because these images have weight that front-lit scenes (images) generally don’t have.

A simple example of this comes from basic portrait lighting and it is called ‘short’ lighting, a termed coined by Leonardo da Vinci, the world’s first photographer. Just kidding about that, but I suspect that this term predates photography altogether. Actually Lenny’s Mona Lisa is a good example of short lighting, although this quality doesn’t jump out at you. She is in a subtle version of loop lighting, and there is some shading on the near side of her face. If her light source was a bit more to her right, this would be more obvious. Google the Mona Lisa and you will see right away what I am referring to.

In photographic portraiture, short lighting simply refers to facing the shadow side of the face or having the shadows coming toward the camera. The opposite of short lighting is– you guessed it – long lighting, also called broad lighting, and refers to facing the side of the face the key light is also on. Short lighting gets its name from how this style makes the near side – the shadow side – seem shorter or smaller than the highlight side –sometimes. And, as you might guess, broad (long) lighting gets it’s name from how much longer/broader the lit side of the face appears – sometimes.

Confused? Don’t worry. If you are a new portrait shooter, this will sink in quickly. Once you have seen the difference, you’ll be an expert and this simple dynamic can be applied, to some degree, to nearly anything you take a picture of.

Said another way, photographs with strong light from behind the subject have more potential for drama and mood than photos made with the light mostly from the front. There is another reason I like this type of lighting: it conveys a sense of depth and distance behind the subject and a sense of place because this backlighting or rim lighting must theoretically come from some place. Depth is good.

From now on, think about your lighting in terms of whether you are facing it or whether your subject is facing it. There is no single, best way to light any subject, but many subjects do look better one way or the other, and understanding the difference can make or break an image.

So, face the light!

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