The Power of Shadows in Portrait Photography

Like all pro photographers, I’m obsessed with light. But I also love to harness the power of darkness and shadow – especially when I want to create dramatic portraits. 

I captured the image in this video live as part of a Hasselblad/broncolor workshop held in Taipei, Taiwan. I was just as determined to control the shadow density as I was to manipulate the light. In the video, I show you how I did just that.

How I used shadows in this portrait

Watch the video to get a sense of how I balanced rim lighting on the model’s face, neck and shoulders with controlled shadow fill.

You’ll also see the specialised modifier – one I also use often in my product photography – that enabled me to secure the perfect exposure for the model’s face.

Along the way, you’ll hear one of my trademark digressions on why you never need to use a light meter for photography again.

Karl Taylor shadow photography

© Karl Taylor

Now that you’ve seen me use shadow to great effect, let’s take a deeper dive into the power of shadow in portrait shots.

Why is shadow important in portrait photography?

Good portraiture requires creative use of shadows to create attention and shape. Shadows can turn an otherwise flat, uninteresting portrait into an image that pops and grabs the viewer's attention.

Karl Taylor shadow photography

© Karl Taylor

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For example, by creating a strong dark area on the side of the face away from the camera you can separate your subject from their backdrop within the frame.

How can you use shadows in your images?

Creative use of shadow is a great way to draw the viewer's eye to the aspects of the image you wish to highlight.
Shadow photography

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In the portrait above, much of the model's face is in shadow, which makes the light on her jawline, cheekbones and eyes all the more striking.

How can you use rim lighting to create dramatic portraits?

Another way you can use shadows in photography is through rim lighting. As I demonstrate in the video above, and in many of my tutorials, rim lighting is a technique in which a light source produces a ‘rim’ of light around the outline of a subject, which can make for some very cool photos.

In other words, placing a rim light behind your subject will backlight them, casting much of their face in shadow. This creates more contrast in your photos and therefore more depth and dimensionality.

Rim lighting portrait photography

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Photographing your subject in front of a dark backdrop will accentuate the effect of rim lighting. You can use most kinds of light for this technique, though I find studio flash to be more effective than continuous light.

Check out our tutorials on ‘Rim Lighting for Stunning Portraits’ and 'Creative Portrait Lighting 2.0'.

How can shadows effect the mood of a portrait?

Creating a powerful mood in a portrait is often about much more than choosing the right lens, aperture and pose. Creative use of shadows can also play an important role.

For example, you may choose to cast your subject's face almost entirely in shadow, using light only sparingly. This naturally makes for a striking shadow photography image – one that may convey a mood of introspection or sadness.

Moody portrait shadow photography

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If the shadow is cast over your subject’s eyes, very dark shadows will appear underneath them, giving the impression that the subject is angry.

How does the inverse square law affect shadows in photography?

As you probably already know, I'm obsessed with the theory of light. One aspect of lighting theory that all photographers must understand is the inverse square law – especially if they're interested in shadow photography.

This principle states that light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. In other words, if you move a light source twice as far away from a subject, the intensity of the resulting illumination will be four times less.

Check out our course on 'A Deeper Understanding of the Inverse Square Law'.

Inverse square law explained
Karl explains the inverse square law
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For instance, if you have a 600-watt-second strobe and take it 12 metres away from your subject, the intensity of the light will drop to only 150 watt-seconds. This is because the light has been spread over a larger area.

Applying this law in your photography can help you to create the dramatic portraits you want. Just remember that the shadow cast by an object is proportional to the size of the object and its distance from the source of lighting.

What lights and modifiers should you use for shadow photography?

Portrait photographers interested in shadows have a range of lighting modifiers at their disposal. In fact, you can use most lights and modifiers – anything from natural lighting modifiers, like umbrellas or reflectors, to artificial lighting modifiers, like softboxes and beauty dishes. The choice of modifier will determine the strength and quality of shadows in your final image.

Before asking "Which modifier should I use for shadow photography?", it is important to understand what kind of shadow you are trying to achieve.

Lighting setup for portrait
Aerial view of the lighting set up for rim lighting portrait image above

The quality of shadow is determined by two elements – the size and the shape of the modifier used, and the distance between your light source and your subject. You can quickly change both elements (and therefore, the characteristics of your shadows) by moving either closer or further away from your subject/light source.

This means that once you have an idea of the type of shadow you are aiming for, the answer to "what lights should I use?" can be determined by considering what movements you will make before taking your final shot.

If the shadows are round and diffuse, then move close to your subject. If they are harsh, angular or sharp, consider moving further away to see what happens.

Trying different creative lighting solutions for a portrait
Karl experimenting with different lights during a portrait shoot
You may even go so far as to place the modifier where you want it, then move backwards slowly until you like what you see in your shots. This is especially helpful if the modifier has a certain shape or size, such as a strip box.

Try using chiaroscuro in your photos

Fine art or photography aficionados may be familiar with the term chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word that means "light-dark". It refers to the play of light in an image, and how the shadows add depth, detail and emotion to paintings or photos.

This technique is easily recognizable even if you don't know what it's called. It features in many famous Renaissance paintings, from Caravaggio's 1602 work "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" to Rembrandt's 1632 painting "Bathsheba at Her Bath".

Chiaroscuro in portrait photography

© Karl Taylor

Chiaroscuro can be a great way to create contrast and depth in your photos. It's especially effective when combined with the Rule of Thirds, as it creates a great balance within an image.

What is Rembrandt lighting in portrait images?

Producing an effect similar to chiaroscuro, Rembrandt lighting is achieved by using one light source that is positioned off to the side of the subject.

The resulting shadows fall on the "short" side of the subject's face – that is, the side that is turned slightly away from the viewer. Rembrandt lighting is therefore a form of "broad lighting,” in that the broad side of the face is illuminated.

Rembrandt lighting shadow photography

© Karl Taylor

The technique has been used to great creative effect by many photographers. The hard key light typically emits a beam of hard light that comes from one side and hits directly on the subject's cheek.

The Rembrandt technique is most easily identified by a triangle of light visible on the subject's other cheek – that is, the one furthest away from the light.

What is loop lighting in photography?

A popular and fun technique when shooting portraits is to use a narrow lighting source, such as a beauty dish or a strip bank, and have it placed at a 45 degree angle from the camera.

This creates what is called loop lighting in portrait pictures. It produces a small ‘loop’-shaped shadow of your subject’s nose that falls to the side and slightly below the nose itself.

Loop lighting girl by lake
Photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash
Provided you find the right exposure, these shadows create an interesting catchlight effect in the eyes, which draw attention to your subject's face in the resulting images.

What is butterfly lighting in photography?

Similar to loop lighting, butterfly lighting creates unique shadows on the face. Butterfly lighting decreases the light in between the eyebrows and increases it on each side of the nose, creating a ‘butterfly’ shape to emphasise the features.

Butterfly lighting is most easily identified by the triangular shadow directly beneath the nose.

The easiest way to create butterfly lighting in photography is to use a single light source positioned across from your camera and slightly above your model. However, creating butterfly lighting with two light sources will be easier for beginners to shoot as it is more forgiving.

Butterfly lighting shadow photography portrait

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When you are trying to shoot a photo using butterfly lighting, lift your main light slightly higher to reduce the shadows on their nose and chin. The higher the angle of the light to the face, the softer the shadows will be. Moving your subject's head slightly to one side can also minimize shadows.

Make use of colour in your shadow photography

While you’re playing around with light and dark in portraiture, don’t forget about colour. You can even add colour to your shadows!

In the image below, the precise slash of light across the model’s forehead, eye and cheek contrasts with the muted, blue-tinted shadows of the rest of the photograph.

I achieved this effect by adding a coloured filter to the fill light before introducing a precision light source to create the bright highlight strip.

Combining blue-tinted shadows with a narrow shaft of hard light creates a tranquil and otherworldly atmosphere.

Butterfly lighting shadow photography portrait

© Karl Taylor

Don’t be afraid of the darkness!

In the same way that clouds make a bright sunset photo more interesting, shadows can help you create dramatic portraits by making the ordinary extraordinary.

As I explain in the video above, controlling shadow density can be just as important (and fun!) as sculpting light if you want to produce a compelling final image. This is true whether you're shooting people, trees, a landscape, or simple everyday objects like wicker baskets, to name a few.

Shadows: portrait photography needs them

If you take the time to focus on shadows when you're shooting, and adjust and perfect the contrast both in the focal point and in other aspects of the frame, you can give your photography a hint of mystery and power.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, and no limit to what you can achieve. But shadows definitely bring a lot to the table!

Experimenting with shadow photography can open up a new horizon in the landscape of your art, and add a new and exciting dimension to the shots in your portfolio.

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