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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Street Photography Quick Tip: How to Create Powerful Photos with Shadows

2022-12-23
11
436

Street photography trains you to make the best of available light to get the impact you want. A photographer tells us how he achieved this mysterious, evocative image where the story is in the shadows. (Reported by: Kazuyoshi Tanabe, Digital Camera Magazine)

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 104mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/125 sec, EV -1.0)/ ISO 800/ WB: Auto

In this article:

 

What kind of light is best for shadowy shots?

In street photography, you don’t have the same control over light as you might have in some other genres. You need to work with what’s available—and make it work for you. And to be able to achieve that successfully, you must be able to read the direction and quality of light.

Learn more about light directions and quality in:
Lighting Basic: Hard and Soft Light
Knowing Your Light Rays

Generally, to get strong, impactful shadows, you want either back lighting or side lighting. Front lighting makes shadows look weaker. How do you do that if you can’t control the source? The key is in where you stand.

Step 1: Positioning
Step 2: Finding a good subject
Step 3: Setting the exposure

 

Step 1: Position yourself to get the desired lighting

For this scene, I went into the sheltered shopping alley and pointed the camera outdoors. Anywhere that is sheltered should work to create the contrast! This is also useful for cloudy or rainy days, where the light is more diffused and results in weaker shadows.

 

Step 2: Look for a good subject

For this shot, I employed the “fishing” technique, where you more or less decide on your backdrop and the composition before waiting for a suitable subject. But this doesn’t mean it’s not applicable for when you employ the “hunting” technique, too. When looking for subjects, be sure to look in the boundaries where light and shadow meet. There are often potential subjects that would usually escape our attention, like the bicycle in the image below.

Pro tip: How much of the frame should the shadows fill?

If you’re unsure, try a light-shadow ratio of 1:1 and then adjust from there. The larger the proportion of shadows, the simpler the composition will look. This also makes it easier to draw the viewer’s attention to your subject and express your intent.

 

Step 3: Expose for the highlights

When you’ve found your subject, expose for the highlights. This makes the shadows look even darker, maximising the contrast. If you are using a mirrorless camera, the electronic viewfinder lets you preview the brightness of highlight and shadow areas and even display the histogram. Use it to your advantage!

For the main image, I have exposed for the bright outdoors, which turned the darker objects indoors, including the subject, into silhouettes. This also acts as a simplifying mechanism: the distracting indoor details disappear into darkness.

In the above example, exposing for the highlights created strong contrasts that made the image look interesting. 


Tip: In a semi-automatic mode exposure mode, use spot metering and AE lock to expose for highlights


Step 1:
Press the [Q] button on the back of your camera to open the Quick Control menu.


Step 2:
Tap or navigate to the metering mode icon (it should be somewhere among the icons on the left-hand side) and choose ‘Spot metering’.


Step 3:
You’ll see a circle appear in the middle of the screen. Move your camera so that the circle is over the brightest area in your frame, in other words, the area that you want to expose for. On an electronic viewfinder or in Live View, if your exposure simulation is turned on, you should see the other areas of the image become darker.

We’ve outlined the spot metering circle to make it more obvious.


Step 4:
Lock the exposure by pressing the AE lock button. The button looks like an asterisk “*”. This lets you recompose the shot without the exposure settings changing.

The * symbol should appear to indicate that the exposure is locked at where you metered in Step 3.


Step 5:
If the shadows are not dark enough, you can use negative exposure compensation. This also makes the overall image darker. (Also see: Deepening Shadows to Spotlight the Road Home)


For more tips on using shadows in street/natural light photography, see:
Sunrise, Sunset: Achieving Dramatic Contrasts in Street Photography
Handling Natural Light: A Corridor of Light on an Autumn Forest
Handling Natural Light: A High Key Portrait with Patterned Shadows
Silhouette Frame Composition: A Way to Spotlight the Mundane

About the Author

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Kazuyoshi Tanabe

Born in Fukuoka in 1968, Tanabe graduated with a photography degree from the Osaka University of Arts. He then went to the United States, where he pursued further learning in Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. After returning to Japan, he worked in the research office of his alma mater’s Department of Photography. An independent photographer since 1998, he is a member of the Japan Professional Photographers’ Society. In 2008, he held a solo exhibition titled “Memory”. He is also the author of the book Watashi, shashin ga umaku narimashita [I have become good at photography].

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