EXPLORING LIGHT AND SHADOWS

“Where there is light, there are shadows”. This is a well-known saying that could have possibly come from a photographer. Light and shadows are inseparable. They live with one another, and photographers depend very much on these two elements to create the mood and effects out of their pictures. The word “photography” itself comes from the Greek. “Phos” means light, and “graphine” means to write. This clearly suggests the overriding importance of light to the photographer, and to simply put – photography means writing with light. As such, many photographers including myself have constantly devoted a lot of attention to the phenomenon of light and what it can do.

I always have an intense interest in studying the effects of light and the resulting shadows. In photography, I think it is of core importance to know how to evaluate light correctly and to judge shadows confidently. The general mood of a photograph is more than often characterized by the distribution of light and the proportion of shadows, and I feel that this aspect has always been overlooked. A good photographer is able to manipulate light distribution and shadows expertly. They are able to control them, and to place the subject in the correct light at the correct position, achieving the optimum effect. Just as a good chef has to know the principal characteristics of the ingredients he has to work with, so must the photographers be knowledgeable about the characteristics of light if they strive to create good photographs.

This picture was taken at the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, Sarnatha in India (in 2011). It is a modern temple erected by the Mahabodhi Society near the Dhamek Stupa. I spent some time when I was there, observing the prayers and the endless flow of visitors and devotees arriving from various international Buddhist communities. I stood at the side of the temple in the direction of the sun and waited for the perfect moment. After some time, three visitors walked out from the temple, casting very nice and long shadows through the pillars of the temple that also provided a unique framing for the shot.

Light creates shadow and shadow in return, enhances the appearance of the subject. The interaction between the two is fascinating. Sometimes, the shadows that an object cast is able to relate much more than the actual subject. And in some cases, the subject is even omitted from the frame, leaving the shadow alone to tell the whole story. However, we must be able to distinguish between distracting shadows (that should be avoided) and compelling shadows. A compelling shadow often creates depth in a picture, giving it a third dimensional feel. The effect of shadows can sometimes also create a mysterious mood or suspense to the viewer.

Artificial light (usually used in indoor or studio photography) has the advantage, as photographer is able to manipulate it to suit their specific needs for a given task (often involving commercial photography such as portraiture, fashion or still life and products). Studio and indoor photography is a good way of understanding the various uses of light and the associated equipment to create or eliminate shadows. However, during my course of work, I prefer to apply my understanding of light and shadows towards the photojournalistic and documentary style of photography. More than often, I enjoy making use of available light from the sun to create the mood I want for my pictures. I often make use of the sunlight in the morning or evening (my golden hour) to create long and compelling shadows into my pictures. Very often, they can do amazing things to the photograph, and it gives me many more options for my composition.

The following is a series of pictures captured both locally (from Singapore) as well as overseas in my constant quest and exploration for light and shadows. I have converted most of them to monochrome (black and white) as I like the mood that it creates for such pictures. Do check back again as I will update this post with more shots on “Light and Shadows”. Keep shooting and enjoy chasing the shadows…

This shot looked like it was posed but it isn't. Picture taken outside the entrance of the Art Science Museum in Singapore. I was there watching an endless flow of visitors going in and out from the museum. It was late in the afternoon and and the sun was casting very long shadows. I caught this kid running out from the museum. She was jumping around with her arms raised and I managed to catch her shadow which in my opinion is even more compelling than the subject. This will probably just be a very ordinary picture without the shadow in place.

Shadows can tell a lot of stories. Shot at the Dubar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal (in 2011). The picture above relates to the viewer, and gave the impression of a happy family in harmony with parents and children. I deliberately kept the subject (the family) out of the frame, leaving just a bit of the feet inside (at the top right of the photo), and letting the shadows tell the rest of the stories. If I were to shoot directly at the family, it will turn out to be a very ordinary street shot of people walking.

A Street shot taken off Thamel area in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was wandering around the area where most of the streets were covered under shade by the shop-houses that are packed closely together. One of the alleys happened to be lighted up by a ray of sunlight shinning through and I caught these three Nepalese ladies strolling down, producing very distinct long shadows.

Shadows can sometimes give a mysterious mood to a picture. When I took the shot above, the man (likely to be the little girl's father) was probably talking to her daughter. But their position together with the street lighting casted a pair of shadow that seem to suggest a different scenario. The shadow adds a mysterious mood or even a sense of fear to an otherwise harmless photo.

Another shot taken this time from within the Art Science Museum (in Singapore). I moved indoor to capture this shot as I spotted the shadows of the vertical grid lines casted by the support on the glass wall. Together with the mother and child passing by, it adds to a very interesting shadow shot.

Another shot taken from the Kathmandu Dubar Square in Nepal. Spotted a few Nepalese porters with heavy load on their back walking across the square, together with some locals that happen to be walking in line with them. What I like about this picture is the curve formed by the individual shadows (bottom left), enhancing the element of lines and shapes in the picture.

The picture above was taken when I was riding on a trishaw along a street in Varanasi, India. In front of me was another trishaw and I wanted to capture a street shot to show what is happening around me. Instead of zooming in and shooting directly at the trishaw in front of me, I chose to let the shadow casted by my own trishaw as the main subject, with the trishaw in front backing up the picture.

This is another street shot taken in Singapore. Similar to an earlier picture shown above, I deliberately kept the subject (the two men) out of the frame, exposing just a bit of the feet (at the top of the photo), and letting their shadows tell the rest of the stories. Their shadows suggest that the two men are in harmony. The texture of the ground also give the picture an additional element of patterns.

Using shadows to fill up the picture. This shot was taken in the Thamel area in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Street shot taken off Thamel area in Kathmandu, Nepal. This picture is similar to the shot of the three Nepalese ladies shown earlier. One of the alleys happened to be lighted up by a ray of sunlight shinning through and I caught a Nepalese man strolling down, balancing two baskets with a stick on his shoulder, producing a very distinct shadow.

Light and shadows can be put into good use for architectural and landscape/environmental shots as well. An example above, shot at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. I spotted the interesting shadows casted by the roof-terrace there, producing photographic elements such as line, patterns and mirror. A subject walking through would have been an added bonus.

I left this last picture in colour. Shooting into the direction of the sun, the man walking towards the Art Science Museum (in Singapore) creates a long and huge shadow that I could not resist shooting. Imagine this picture without the shadow, will the man appear as "floating" in the photo? The shadow certainly adds 'weight' to the picture.

Alright, here's another bonus shot that I just added (a week after I published this post). Too many human shots you've seen above? How about this one - Saw this rooster running up the steps of a small opening where the light from the external shines in, giving a very good side lighting and shadows. The entire place was dark actually, other than the small rim of light which beautifully light up the rooster. I caught it just in time before the rooster disappear to the outside. Shot taken in Nepal.

~~~Photography & Edited by Chia Loy Chuan (July, 2011)~~~

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