The Dance of Shadows

More and more I see images, both wildlife and landscape, published on websites and in photography forums that are shadowless, almost completely shadowless.  I guess this is a result in the big upsurge of HDR (High Dynamic Range) type photography effects, effects that create images with filled shadows.  Shadows seem to be under attack as some kind of flaw in photography, something that needs to be either filled or HDR’d out of the image.  As I’ve seen this become a standard processing step my feelings about it have grown stronger, and more negative.

Anything I say about the benefit of shadows in photography has been said countless times by others more articulate than I am.  Shadows add needed contrast, definition, three dimensionality, etc etc.  Shadows can be defined as areas within an image with an absence of light.  Those shadowed areas can tell us the time of day the image was shot at, shadows can provide relief in which to paint other areas with light, or it can be used to exclude less important areas around the subject.

Queen's Garden Hoodoos at Sunrise - Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

It’s the play of light and the dance of shadows that intrigues our eye and leads it around the image.  We marvel at the interplay of light and shadow, how light wraps around some subjects only to be stopped and defined by shadows.  This image (above) from Bryce Canyon National Park shows how important shadows are to the overall impact of this image.  Without the shadows the scene would appear flat and emotionless, the drama in a landscape is created by both light and dark.

Red Fox - showing normal daylight shadows

Red Fox - Shadows removed or lightened

This is probably where I see shadows removed the most, in wildlife and bird images.  In this Red Fox image the shadows appear as normal in the top image, and removed or lightened in the bottom image.

To my eye the Red Fox image is far better with shadows than without.  There is a certain feeling placement in the environment, as well as time of day and intensity of light when the shadows are allowed to remain.

I recently saw a Swift Fox image online jumping in full-daylight.  There wasn’t a shadow in the image.  The underside stomach was as bright as the top of the back of the fox.  The shadow cast on the ground was nearly imperceptible to the fully lit grass around it.  You could have flipped the image upside down without being able to tell which way was up or down.  I don’t see the appeal of that type of image.  I looked at that image and even though I understand the process – I couldn’t see where the image benefited from the lack of shadows.

Living in the agricultural capital of the world, I pay attention to the Ag photography I see published in magazines or used in stock photography applications.  More and more I see the same shadow reduction techniques applied here.

Cornfield in Tulare County - normal shadows

I think that photographers get taken by the newest software feature or the latest technique in image manipulation.  We want to create something unique, something that others haven’t done.  If it can’t be through our choice of subject material (how many different things can be photographed today that have never been photographed before) it seems to be through processing tricks.

Cornfield in Tulare County - no shadows

The no shadow cornfield looks bizarre compared to the original image.  As your eye moves down the cornfield you expect to see darker and darker shadows, you don’t expect evenly lit stalks.  Maybe its not just the loss of shadows that I object to, but the loss of image expectations.

I recently read an article in a well known photography magazine that offered tips on shadow reduction in Photoshop.  The images that were used in the article were similar to the images I’m using above, created with the same techniques.  Each of us, with the powerful software available today, can create these types of images.

But I hope that before bumping up the Fill Light slider Lightroom or ACR, or using the Highlight/Shadow controls in Photoshop – you will examine your image and look at how the play of shadows and light impact your eye.    Sometimes our tastes wander to the new and different when the old and traditional would be a better choice.  Shadows in an image are like the lines on a road map – they lead us to where our eye naturally wants to go.

Maples and Shadows - Zion National Park
This final image is my road map of shadows leading around the image.  This silhouetting of the maple tree trunk and branches (not in complete silhouette) is a common use of shadow in nature photography.  Without the strong shadows the color and light would dominate the image without a contrasting point, simply color on color with brightness.

In my image processing work flow I pay as much attention to shadows as I do to the overall exposure and brightness of the image.  I find myself crafting shadow intensity to fit the scene and what I really saw as I photographed the subject.  Filling shadows will inherently increase noise in the processed areas, as well as effect (unless applied locally with a mask) shadows in the overall image that you may not want filled – this is especially true in clouds or foreground vegetation.  No matter what your tastes as a photographer, careful processing and protection of shadows is an intricate part of image processing and final output rendition of the image.  I find myself using shadow controls with a very light touch.

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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1 Response to The Dance of Shadows

  1. Tim Schofield says:

    Very good point.

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