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Handling Natural Light: Deepening Shadows to Spotlight the Road Home

Exposure compensation can be used for artistic expression. In this article, find out how a photographer used it to deepen the shadows around her subject to achieve a “spotlight” effect on it. (Reported by: Ikuko Tsurumaki, Digital Camera Magazine)

Dark, low key shot with well-lit stone staircase in the centre

EOS M50/ EF-M18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM/ FL: 28mm (45mm equivalent)/ Aperture-priority AE (f/7.1, 1/160 sec, EV-1.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: Cloudy


The story behind the shot 

It was after 5pm in the evening, and the strong evening light shone head on from a low position onto the small stone pavement that lay between flights of stairs on a slope.

Composing the shot

Hoping to draw as much attention as possible to the steep, narrow incline, I shot from an angle that was almost directly top-down. The horizontal orientation allowed me to include the the trees and structures by the side to frame the road.

I chose an angle-of-view that was close to standard, and then made fine adjustments while paying attention to the placement of the handrails and the trees. All the time, I made sure that the composition preserved the atmosphere of the scene as I saw it. 

The focus point was on the manhole on the pavement. 

Using shadows to simplify an image

The camera-determined correct exposure captured all the details of the scene, but because of all the distracting detail, the small, sunlit pavement didn't stand out enough.
I decide to simplify the image by applying negative exposure compensation, which turned the objects around the pavement into shadow, making the pavement stand out in comparison.


Analysing the light and exposure

Diagram showing lighting direction

Light direction: Angled backlight that originated from a low position and shone directly onto the little stone-paved road at (A).
(A) The main subject of the shot: Stone pavement directly lit by the golden evening sun
(B) and (C): A brick wall and trees that flanked the staircase. They were cast in shadow, and I incorporated them into the shot so that (A) would stand out better.

Reading the histogram: A low key shot

Histogram showing low key shot with crushed blacks

I had already decided to darken the elements surrounding the primary interest in (A) to make it stand out better—the question was how much?
Applying exposure compensation to achieve the effect I wanted for (A) resulted in crushed blacks and lost shadow detail in (B) and (C).


How (A), (B), and (C) were handled

For (A): Create shadows to make the pavement stand out

"Correct" exposure: Pavement does not stand out

Staircase between buildings, evenly-lit with correct exposure

When the entire shot was correctly exposed (exposure compensation: 0), everything was bright and the sunlight on the stone pavement didn’t stand out.

The main subject in this shot was (A), the short path at the bottom of the stairs that glowed in the evening light. Taking it as my exposure benchmark, I applied negative exposure compensation while looking through my viewfinder. I stopped adjusting at  EV-1.7, when the long shadows that the green wire fencing cast on the stone pavement looked dark enough.

For (B) and (C): Adjusting the shadows in post-processing

After applying exposure compensation, B and C had become so dark that a lot of details were lost. To balance out the overall contrast, I decided to brighten them by just a little.

In post-processing, there wasn't much effect when I increased the "Shadows" parameter, so I increased "Blacks" instead. I achieved idea results at “Blacks: +34”.


Learn more about using shadows and contrast for creative expression in:
Sunrise, Sunset: Achieving Dramatic Contrasts in Street Photography
Handling Natural Light: Adding Impact to an Environmental Portrait
3 Ways to Capture Compelling Images of Monochromatic Winter Scenes


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Digital Camera Magazine

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

Ikuko Tsurumaki

Ikuko Tsurumaki

Born in Tokyo in 1972, Tsurumaki started learning photography while working with an advertising agency, and became a photographer after her career as an assistant. She is currently engaged in activities including photo shoots for magazines, writing articles, and conducting photography lectures and seminars.