As a photographer, you hear a lot about how important it is to know how to see the light. This is absolutely, 100% true!
Much of my photography journey can be marked by how I use the light. I went through a phase of flat, even window lighting with beautiful big catchlights followed by portraits with 45 degree window lighting, then backlighting, and finally, dramatic lighting.
One of the very first things I learned was to avoid dappled lighting.
For a good two or three years, I avoided uneven lighting and direct sunlight at any cost.
I would drape sheer curtains over my windows to diffuse the sun, I’d shoot in open shade, I’d backlight.
Back in August, however, I moved to a new place and my move also coincided with the opportunity to do a photoshoot with the amazing Sarah Vaughn. And the way she used light… it was incredible and like nothing I had ever tried before!
Instead of shying away from the direct sun or uneven lighting, she’d find the patches of even light and use the uneven light around it to add interest in the shadow patterns.
Ever since then, I have been keeping my eye out for the interplay of light and shadows.
The key to using dappled light, as with breaking any rule of photography, is to be intentional. If you’re not careful, having random shadows on your subject can look like an amateur mistake. I
f you have a patch of shadow over just part of the chin of your subject, for example, or over part of your subject’s cheek, it’ll look like you didn’t know how to find good light.
But there are a lot of different things you can do with shadows and patches of light to enhance your vision and photos.
1. Making the shadows the subject.
This is the easiest thing to do with fun shadows! If you see some particularly beautiful play of light and shadow, don’t worry about putting a person in the scene, just take a photo of it as is!
I have several trees outside of my porch, which means that when the sun falls directly through them in the morning, it makes a beautiful pattern on my curtains.
2. Using shadows to form a backdrop and backlighting.
In the photo below, I backlit myself and refrained from blowing out the window entirely, letting the interplay of light and shadows add interest to the photo, rather than just having a solid background.
This photo would not have been nearly as strong if I had posed myself in front of a window that had no trees blocking the sunlight.
3. Making the subject somewhat secondary to the shadows.
This is a little similar to the first tip. In the photo below, the subject is the man getting dressed, but the thing that makes the photo special is the way the light and shadows are falling on him.
One of my favorite ways to use shadows is to frame my subject. The following photo is taken on my phone, but I used the light through a window as a natural frame within my frame.
5. Using patterned shadows.
The best example of this is light through window blinds. The regularity of the shadows helps make it clear that the decision was intentional.
The lines across my face on the photo below are interesting, rather than distracting for this reason. In the second photo, the lines from the blinds and shadows help direct your eye throughout the photo.
6. Strengthening compositions.
This kind of ties in with the previous point on regularly patterned shadows. Look for light falling through man-made objects, as you tend to find more regular lines and patterns. Use the shadows created for repetition and leading lines.
I choose to sidelight in dappled light for much the same reason I would choose to backlight. It adds interest to my photo while also still giving decent lighting to my subject.
Here the sidelight is uneven, but it isn’t unflattering like it would have been if I had set up my camera next to the window where the light is coming from.
8. Looking for light among the shadows.
Finding patches of even light is incredibly important. I like to evenly light faces… Or at least the eyes!
In the photos below I looked for larger patches of even light in between the shadows and made sure to put my face in them. The added advantage of this is that it causes everything not in that patch of light to fall into darkness, emphasizing what is in the light.
9. Adding mood and mystery.
This was taken at the exact same location as the photo above, but I just took a few steps to my right.
I originally was just taking this as an example to show how important it is to find even lighting for faces, but you can also see how this has a completely different feel from the other photo. If I had turned to look at the camera, you can see how I could have created a creepy, stalker-y feel.
In the second photo, I used the shadows to both frame my friend and also add mystery by having everything but his face fall into the shadows.
Those are the different ways I use shadows and uneven lighting. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with these tips.
If you need more inspiration, Jessica Lutz and Sarah Vaughn are masters of using interesting lighting situations! Take a look at their photos and spend some time analyzing how the light falls and how they chose to place their subjects in it.
Really, what it comes down to is just constantly looking at the light in your life!