I used to be afraid of shadows. Not the kind created by harsh street lights in dark, deserted alleyways, though those can be pretty spooky.
I’m talking about the darkest areas of a photograph, where detail disappears and the underexposure warning flashes ominously in Lightroom. THOSE shadows.
In my defense, conventional photographic wisdom has taught us to avoid shadows. The concept of “exposing to the right,” which encourages shifting exposure toward the right side of the histogram, is based on preserving shadow detail. By doing so, you don’t end up inadvertently raising noise if you have to increase exposure in the darkest parts of your image in post-processing. That’s solid advice but based on an assumption that I used to accept as fact. Specifically, that there’s something worth seeing in the shadows.
In some images, there is. Maybe I want to call attention to the details in a stone building or emphasize texture in a landscape. If those details are a critical part of the photo, then indeed, they shouldn’t be hidden.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a conscious choice to let the shadows fall where they may when what’s lurking there doesn’t contribute to the story, or worse yet, detracts from it. While this applies to all photos, it is essential for monochrome images.
Take this image of a man waiting for a sausage sandwich at a street festival. In my mind, he’s the subject, and I love the way the light from the left side illuminates his hair and shirt and draws your eye right to him. Are parts of the image underexposed? Absolutely, because they contain nothing of importance.
But let’s see what happens when we push the shadow slider to the right in post.
Now we have a more evenly exposed image for sure. We can see the vendor’s face, people passing by in the street, the windows of the building in the background. And as a fashion bonus, it is now clear the man is wearing a fanny pack. My eye is no longer drawn first and foremost to the subject but instead is forced to dart around to four or five possible areas of focus, including the sign above him, the choking and smoking signage on the door, and an overflowing trash can.
To be fair, I could have cropped this image to eliminate the trash and the side door to the trailer, but I like those elements. They’re part and parcel of a street fair. I just don’t want them to vie for the viewer’s attention.
Here’s another example. In this image, the story is clear. A father is lifting his young son so that the vendor can hand him his milkshake. Again we have significant areas of complete underexposure with no discernable details whatsoever.
What happens if we boost the shadows here?
Once again, we introduce distractions. We can see more details in the vendor’s face, and that’s where our eye goes first, but the vendor isn’t the story. The father holding up his son is the story. We’ve revealed details in the father’s t-shirt that add nothing to the narrative, and the boy’s sock is glowing.
I’m not suggesting anyone not pay attention to proper exposure. Instead, I’m challenging the notion of what proper exposure is for any particular scene and encouraging you to let the blacks be black, get comfortable with letting the details go, and embrace the shadows.