Photographing Shadows – Photography Experiments

Yesterday’s topic was Photographing Silhouettes.

This is part two in a mini-series. This series looks at silhouettes, shadows and light through smoke. They are all essentially the same thing, but we’ll pull them apart to see the subtle differences.


Bottles on cycle – Elevated view – Nepal
Close-up of orange long leaves – USA – Hawaii
The shadows of prayer flags are shown against the side of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal
Black and white image of a curving sand dune in both the light and shadow – Algodones Dunes, California

If you read yesterday’s post, this is more of the same.

What you’re looking to do with shadows is to make sure they are well defined. If your camera is on Auto Mode and there is a lot of shadow, it will try to lighten those shadows so they aren’t so black. Remember Making Tone Black, Black? That’s why shadows don’t come out as true to life as they should.

What you want to do is meter for the light areas so they are exposed properly. Conversely, you can meter for the shadow and then adjust your exposure bias/compensation to darken the shadows. Either way will work, but metering for the light (especially if you have a gray card) works best.

Here’s the experiment you can run:

1) Set your camera on Manual mode. ISO 100. If you don’t want to use Manual mode, you will need use the Auto Exposure Lock feature of your camera.

1.5) Depending on your subject, pick an aperture that is appropriate for the amount of depth of field you are looking for.

2) Using spot metering, meter off the brighter areas of the scene. In the example above, I would meter off the pavement as it is tonally close to 18% gray, which is what my camera is looking for. If the subject you are metering off of is bright, you’ll want to change shutter speed until the meter reading from your camera reads about +2/3 to +1 1/3 too bight. If you are metering off the shadow area, make sure it is – 2/3 to -1 1/3 too dark.

3) Recompose and shoot!


The trick with using Manual mode in this case is to understand what you are metering off of and what your camera is looking for. If you pointed your camera directly at the shadow area and set the shutter speed so it was lined up with zero, then the shadows will be too light.

There really isn’t a top secret trick to shadows other than knowing where you’re metering and why. Metering for the light area (areas that are being hit by light) will work better, but you need to compensate for their color. All of this is solved by using an 18% gray card and placing it in the light to be metered. Then you can just zero your reading with the shutter speed and you’re set!

Tomorrow we will cap off the mini-series by covering light through smoke. Can you figure out who to make that one work?

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below or email me at

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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