Want Your Photos To Have More Depth, Just Add Shadows
I see it all the time, washed out and overexposed photos with no emotion. Nothing that ever stops me in my tracks, nothing that ever makes me ask more questions, and certainly nothing that ever makes me feel something inside myself. Pretty for the sake of pretty, nothing more.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, there is nothing redeeming about it either.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day and I can’t speak for you, but for me, I want the time I spend on social media (for now I am going to pause on the idea of holding a physical print in your hands, because that is a topic unto itself) to have meaning, to evoke feelings, to occasionally make me laugh and to maybe make me think more about a topic or moment. Can you tell that I am 4 on the enneagram?
The question is then how do we make people feel and think more about a photo amidst a sea of content? The simple answer is about a hundred different things. But one thing that always helps is the simple addition of shadow.
Because shadows allow the texture to come through and texture allows your heart to feel: texture in your skin, in your dress, in the touch of that tuxedo, texture of a wall or floor, the feel of rough bark on a tree or leaf, and when all of that comes together that texture can speak through your movements and emotions.
Shadows can bring about mystery. Shadows can slim or widen a subject. Shadows can draw attention to specific details and subjects. At its most basic function, shadows slow you down as your brain puts together what it is seeing. And slowing down is what we’re after when we jump on social media, open an album, go to a museum, hold a print in our hands or what going to see a movie is all about, isn’t it? We are taking a break from the repetitive go-go-go of our lives in order to connect more deeply with what we need and love.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s take a look at some photos to see the difference (these are all photographs I have made where I edited one in a more traditional light and airy style, while leaving the other as I would deliver to my couples).
It’s a wedding day. People are naturally anxious to have so many people looking at them, dealing with family being a little crazy sometimes, maybe just all around nerves of this day of commitment. Or perhaps it’s just a moment of thought, a pause in an otherwise hectic day. The first photograph is more ethereal and fairytale-like. The colors are more flat and pastel and the mood is almost non-existent - it is simply pretty for the sake of pretty. While the second photograph is moody, raw and thoughtful. The lace is very apparent as is her tulle dress and the shadows help you to trace from her face down, or perhaps even from her face to her gaze out the window. Maybe you love the first over the second, or perhaps vice versa, neither is right or wrong - but for me and my heart the shadows always take my attention.
Here is another example.
Again, the first photograph loses the details of the dress, if there was a sky behind her you would barely be able to make out where her dress ends and where the sky begins. Though it does really brings attention to the flowers. While the second photograph is drenched in shadow, as you can see the full flow and shape of the dress while still holding onto the details of the flowers. Both have some merits, through the question we are driving at is which makes you slow down, even if for just a second?
Let’s look at one more situation.
This is a great example of how shadows sculpt our vision, the feeling and even our imagination. In the first photograph, everything is very clear and straightforward - happy couple standing in a less than ideal setting in a parking garage. It’s not even pretty for the sake of pretty, it’s just a silly moment, but my eyes see the whole scene and there isn’t much to think about so I move on if I see this in my feed or even on a wall. Whereas in the second photograph, the shadow plays several crucial roles. First, it helps bring your attention directly to their faces as your eyes naturally follow the the edge of the shadow up. Secondly, it covers every bit of her face except her mouth. This adds a small mystery, maybe prompting the questions ‘is she making him laugh?’ or ‘is this just a sweet moment?’ We want to know what her face looks like, but we only know she is smiling. And lastly, the shadow adds dimension and interest to a space that is otherwise very plain by thoughtfully covering the back wall of this parking garage and having us think that this could be a balcony somewhere completely different
This is how and why shadows bring a photo to life, or even simply breathe a little more life into an already interesting photograph.
This is not to say that light and airy is wrong. Again, style is a personal choice. But just go back to classic art, such as the renaissance, nothing was without shadow because shadows are what we see and what gives shape and dimension, informs mood and helps to direct our gaze. Our eyes don’t see in a light and airy framework, perhaps sometimes some people would like them to, but we see the light and the dark in everything we look at, and when you remove the shadows from a photograph you remove what made it relatable and almost tangible. You make it a fairytale and personally I just want what’s real.
So next time you are looking at a photograph, look for the shadows and see how they inform the entire picture we are seeing. Or if you are out there and making a photographer, play around with it. Darken it or lighten it in your editing app, or even on your phone screen, and see what happens, see what you feel.
Are you more interested in the raw, the thoughtful, the real, and the adventurous? Would those be the three words to describe what you are searching for in your wedding photography?