Shadows and Shade
July 25th, 2016 by David Labelle

By stepping into the shadow with your subjects—and exposing for shadow—you eliminate harsh shadows and take advantage of soft, even light as in this photo of Toddy and Kate. © David LaBelle

I love shadows because it means the sun is shining somewhere. Those long, deep shadows can be such wonderful helpers for revealing dimension and texture in your photos. They also can be useful elements to add life, scale, movement and mystery to your photos—great gifts in architectural photography.

As my artistic wife observes, “Shadows are free and fluid. A tree is limited, but the shadow of a tree is not; it is liberated and often better than reality.”

Like sharp relatives, shadows can be challenging and difficult to manage. Avoiding lens flare, loss of contrast and figuring exposure requires observation and thought.

There are three common mistakes I see when photographing shadows.

The first is the backlight flare that often occurs when you stand in sunlight while trying to make a picture of someone or something in shadow or open shade. If you are squinting while trying to make the picture, your camera is likely struggling, too.

The second potential disaster is the splotchy-skin look. Magical sunlight sprinkles through dancing tree leaves, creating hundreds of sharp light shards. Though pretty to the naked eye, the exposure difference between the spots of bright light and deep shadow can be a photographic nightmare. It pains me to think of how many “splotchy” and “speckled” midday wedding pictures I have seen made where bride and groom appear to be suffering from a terrible skin disorder.

The third is the accidental silhouette. Standing in the shade with your subject, your light meter reads the bright highlight and makes the exposure accordingly.

Here is my advice when it comes to photographing shadows or open shade:

  • Embrace shadows. Go on a shadow hunt on a bright sunny day—a fun exercise that just might yield some surprising photos. When photographing shadows, expose for the highlights around them and not for the shadows themselves.
  • Get in the shadow. When photographing subjects in shadow, stepping into the shadows with your subjects on bright, sunny days with deep or harsh shadows may be the most important tip I can offer.
  • Use a lens shade. I see a lot of folks with shades turned backwards, rendering them useless. Lens shades are made to block peripheral light, which minimizes glare and helps the contrast in your image. This may not seem like a big deal, but I assure you, it is. Warning: Be careful when using super-wide-angle lenses that you don’t capture the rim of the shade in your frame. Without getting too technical here, wide f-stops can help avoid this.
  • Make your exposure for subjects in shadow and not the highlight behind them, unless you want silhouettes.
  • Use flash. Shadows are great because they usually offer even light with less contrast and exposure variance. A little flash goes a long way to awaken those shadows with more lively color or even out light shards dancing through leaves. Not only will the artificial light open up those shadows, it will awaken colors that may be muted in the shadowy light. Once again, it is critical to step into the shadow when photographing. If you feel comfortable with your camera settings, try making your exposure for the highlight behind your shadowed subject and add light with a strobe/flash.
  • Use a reflector to redirect the bright sunlight and open up shadows. The key is to point your reflector at the sun, catch the light and redirect it onto your subject. The shinier the reflector—silver, bronze or white—determines the intensity of the light reflected. If your subjects are squinting, you might want to use white instead of a shiny surface.
  • Wear a hat. I wear one not only because I am follically challenged on top, but so I have an instant sun shade to block light that causes lens flare or dulls image contrast.

daveDavid LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit