View from Rantovš hill across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

Dark Backgrounds and Shadows in Photography –
How they make an object stand out.

When I started out in photography all I heard was “light, light, light. It’s all about the light.” And this is true, to a point. But what you don’t always hear people say is that shadows in photography, are equally important.

There are many ways in which shadows enhance an image: they help create shape and form and add dimension to an image which might otherwise appear flat. But for this quick photography tip I’m going to concentrate on another use of shadow: making an object stand out.

Essentially, a dark background can help make a brighter foreground object stand out. Test it using your photo editing program if you can. Change the background from white to black and see how the photo stands out more.

The same technique applies in landscape photography, or portraits and any other kind of photography. But here I’m going to show you how I use it in landscape photography.

In the photo at the top of this blog, it was September when the trees were still a vivid green, but because direct light was falling on the hill and church, and the background trees more in the shadow, the church and hill stand out much better. Here is another from that day. Notice also how the shadows give shape to the hills.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

I took the photo below in March, when the trees were brown. In this case, although the background shadow wasn’t so deep, the dark colours have helped make the church stand out.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.


Your subject must also be well lit

As you can see by the photo below, although the background is nice and dark due to the shadow, as the church itself is not well-lit it doesn’t stand out as well as in the top two photos.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.


Background too bright

In this photo, the background trees were not in deep shadow, so although the church is still quite prominent it blends more into the background and doesn’t stand out as well as the top three examples.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

View across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.


Other examples

In the photo below of the Grand Canal near Daingean, County Offaly in Ireland, I had spotted this scene the evening before, but light was falling on it from the front. Therefore the background trees were also directly lit and this tree blended into it all. So I returned the next morning and waited until the sun rose high enough to light the tree on the canal, but still low enough to keep the background trees in shadow.

The Grand Canal in Spring just outside Daingean, County Offaly. The Grand Canal is one of two canals that connect Dublin with the River Shannon in the west of Ireland. It's towpaths are walkable all year round, and it's also possible to take a boating holiday here.

The Grand Canal in Spring just outside Daingean, County Offaly. The Grand Canal is one of two canals that connect Dublin with the River Shannon in the west of Ireland. It’s towpaths are walkable all year round, and it’s also possible to take a boating holiday here.


Scattered storm light

The great thing about storms and scattered showers is that the broken cloud casts patches of light and shadow across the land. In this case, direct light fell on the tree lighting it beautifully, while the background trees were more subtly lit and the clouds had cast a shadow over little patch behind the tree.

Spring view across a field of dandelions to the little village of Tomiselj on the Ljubljana Marshland (Ljubljansko Barje), a large area of wetland 160 square kilometres in size.

Spring view across a field of dandelions to the little village of Tomiselj on the Ljubljana Moors (Ljubljansko Barje), a large area of wetland 160 square kilometres in size.


Use a Polarizing Filter

The top two photos were taken with a polarizing filter.

A polarizing filter can help cut out haze and further darken a background, like in the example below. Read my blog here for more on that

Polarizing filter effects


At the mercy of mother nature

Studio photographers have the luxury of controlling the lighting and shadows in photography, but unfortunately we landscape photographers don’t have that luxury. Therefore we must learn to watch and wait, and also understand weather and watch the forecast. When it says there will be clear blue skies, I stay home. When it forecasts stormy weather, or scattered clouds and showers, I grab my camera…..

Rainy days are a different thing all together. Check out my other blog entry, Rainy Day Photography, to learn about that.


For a more comprehensive look at other aspects of photography, check out my free e-book here

Join me on one of my workshops to learn how to use shadows to full effect.

More info here

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