Shadows are the soul


Sand Dunes – Death Valley


If light is the body of photography then shadows are the soul. There seems to be such an emphasis on getting great light in photography that it would be easy to draw the conclusion that one need only focus on the light and not worry about the shadows. To dimiss the shadows is a mistake, for light can be plain and boring without shadows. Shadows are not simply a dark mass that borders the light. Shadows are just as alive and important as the light is. It is the shadows that add shape to the light, that draw attention to what is being lit. If we are to become great photographers, we must think as much in terms of using and mastering shadows as we do of using and mastering light.

I recently went on a photo trip to Death Valley National Park, which I highly recommend to anyone, photographer or not. There is more color and beauty there than those who have never been there would believe. It is not just a plain, desolate desert that most assume it is. One of my main goals when I went to Death Valley was to catch the amazing shadows you can get at sunset, sunrise and moon rise on the massive dunes that are there.


Mesquite Flat Dunes – Death Valley


One the reasons for the use of shadows is for revealing form and detail. Any irregularities in the shape of the subject or terrain will be highly magnified. The easiest way to do this it to shoot when the sun is at a low angle to the horizon, casting long shadows across the terrain. The image above of Mesquite Flat sand dunes uses shadows for its impact. The shadows help draw the eye to the beautiful golden lit dunes. The dunes photographed with the sun directly overhead would have very little form or detail, creating very little impact or interest. Also shooting at this time of day, which we often call “the golden hour”, adds that nice golden glow on the dunes.


Dunes shot at night with 97% full moon


Another great time to get great shadows is at night when the moon is out. Although both the above and below shots look almost like they were shot at sunset they were actually shot about an hour after dark with a 97% full moon. The shadows really help create serpentine, almost sensual curves along the top of the dunes.  It also really pulls out the sand ripples in the foreground of the photos, especially the photo above.


Don’t underestimate the power of shadows. They can be one of the most powerful tools you can use to create a photo with high impact. I would be interested t0 hear what others have photographed that they believe really relied on the shadows to make the photo.

Remember, It is ok to chase the light as long as you also find the shadows.

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