Lights and Shadows – How to Make Exciting Photos

Sometimes the easiest way to understand any undertaking is to examine the language.  Photography is an art form that dates back to the early 19th century. The word itself is from the Greek and it means “light drawing.” And as any expert will attest that is exactly what photography is…it is the art of capturing memorable images based on light and absence of light, i.e., shadows.

An experienced photographer not only knows how to arrange and position his subject(s), he also knows how the light will fall upon their form at any time of day. He must also be a master of indoor lighting, which can be contained and controlled with astonishing precision in a studio.

In this article, we will discuss four simple and reliable ways professional photographers capture such stirring images based on the use of shadow and light. These techniques are utilized by pros and shutterbugs alike and have never gone out of style, even as new technologies have changed the art form forever.


Before we begin, it is important to note that no type of lighting or shadowing is good or bad. They are merely tools that can be used to create great art. But like any art, the basics are almost always the most important and difficult techniques to master.

As the name implies, backlighting is light that originates from behind your subject or subjects. A classic example of this technique is a happy couple saying “I do” on a windswept beach with the sun setting in the background.  When done correctly, the images are unforgettable. When botched, they could scare Stephen King!

So, how do you get it right? The simplest way is to use the metering mode on your camera, as it helps determine lighting conditions and prevent photographic disasters. If you are using a digital camera, you might also adjust the shutter speed, which will give you more control over lighting in nearly any environment.

Side lighting

When the light source is coming from either side of your subject(s), part of picture will be in the light and part in the shadows. Playing with and mastering this delicate, sometimes dangerous balance is what separates a shutterbug from a professional photographer. A common example of this technique is when the subject stands beside a window with the sunlight pouring in. As you might expect, the side of their body that is exposed to the light will be illuminated, while the other half will be in the shadows, or at least less bright.

As a technique, side lighting can be quite complicated.  An experienced photographer might ask his subjects to change positions and rotate many times before he gets the angles he’s looking for. A good tip is to turn off the flash and rely entirely on natural lighting, since it often produces a softened effect. You can also use a white reflective surface, whether poster board or paper, since it will reflect the light onto the shadowy side and produce a more balanced shot.

Diffused lighting

Every experienced photographer understands when not to take a picture. He knows, for example, that snapping shots during the early afternoon is almost always a mistake, since that is the time when the sun is brightest. This harsh light often results in over-exposed photos that don’t put anyone in a good light…pun intended!

As a general rule, the best time to take outdoor pictures is when the sun retreats behind the clouds and the sky is slightly overcast. This produces a good mixture of light and shadows that is flattering to most subjects in almost any scenario. When shooting indoors, of course, you can always use white reflective surfaces and special materials that can be draped over the lighting source to help soften it and make it more diffuse.

Artificial lighting

Although it’s obviously much easier to control than natural lighting, the artificial variety is far from perfect.  When using a flash, for example, even a professional may snap shots where his subjects are plagued with the dreaded “red eye” effect. To solve this problem, you can use an external flash if your camera is compatible with the helpful accessory. Of course, you can also remove red eye with photo-editing software…but it’s always best to simply avoid the issue by doing the job right the first time!