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  • February 14, 2021
  • 13 min to read

How to Make Amazing Photos Using Light, Shadow, and Reflection

How to Make Amazing Photos Using Light, Shadow, and Reflection

When you think of an image that has an emotional impact on you, what specific qualities of that scene come to mind? Is it a bright photo of the sun shining and it makes you happy? Or is it dark with dramatic shadows, offering a moody vibe?

In the 19th century, the ancestor of the photographic camera — the camera obscura, meaning ‘dark room’ — was an optical device used by artists to make quick sketches. Essentially, a pinhole was used to to form an inverted image that was then projected on an opposite wall of a dark room.

Imagine venturing into a dark room on a bright day, making a small hole in a curtain or window covering, and being able to view the world outside the window on the opposite wall — the camera obscura worked in the exact same way.

From there, lenses were used to cast sharper images and what we now know to be the photographic camera was born. But even since those early days, photographers have used key elements to give their photos different effects and to elicit a variety of reactions from their viewers — among these, are light, shadow, and reflection. Like Ansel Adams and his famous use of light in black and white images, or Tom Hussey’s incredible reflections in his award-winning “Reflections of the Past” campaign, these elements have been used throughout time to create stunning images. You’ll find them in everything from magazine spreads to billboard advertisements to celebrity portraiture. 

And the fun news is, these elements are also used every day by amateur photographers around the world to create amazing and memorable images. Let’s dive into each one to discover when and how to use them.


What it Does 
Lighting plays a spectacular role in photos and helps to create mood (bright and cheer-filled or dark and somber). Natural light, using the sun or daylight, varies depending on the season, the weather, and your own particular location in the world. Artificial light, like flash and fluorescent lights, can be fun to experiment with and to cast different colors and intensity over your shots.

How to Use It
If you’re utilizing natural light, consider taking images at Golden Hour, which is that magical time just after sunrise or just before sunset. Photographers love shooting during this time as their images tend to be cast with a beautiful and soft golden glow. Portraits and landscape shots, in particular, are fun to explore during this time of day. 

If it’s artificial light you’re interested in exploring, know that different bulbs produce different types of light. Tungsten bulbs offer a reddish color whereas halogen bulbs are cooler and more blue. Think of the story you’re looking to tell in your photo, and choose the right sort of lighting that will help you portray it. Utilizing available light like candles, twinkle lights, and flashlights can help for creativity, too. 

Who Uses It Well
Annie Leibovitz is a widely famous photographer who first began her career by shooting for Rolling Stone and has since created some of the most iconic portraits of all time. Today, she works regularly for Vogue and Vanity Fair and is recognized for her lighting style, a studio setup that produces a somewhat muted look (similar to a painting). To achieve Annie-like images, try lighting your model by a single light source on one side, as close as you can get to the subject. Soften the light with something like a diffuser or umbrella and snap away.


What it Does
Shadow is used to create dramatic images and give photos a feel of mystery and darkness. Strong shadows add depth to the composition of your photos and draw your viewer’s into the scene. When shadow mingles with other elements of photos (like lighting or reflection) it makes things intriguing and full of contrast. 

How to Use It
To experiment with shadow, try creating a silhouette in your image, which is a play between dark and light. To create simple silhouettes, venture out at sunset and place your subject in an area where the light is behind them. Whether you’re shooting a bird, a bridge, or a person, make sure their shape is distinct and outlined so that the silhouette can appear more dramatic. 

Who Uses It Well
In a series of street photographs, London-based photographer Rupert Vandervell produced a “Man on Earth” project that portrays a person’s figure framed by city shadows. To do this, he uses features of the city — like skyscrapers and bus stops — to create shadows and draw attention to his human subjects. 


What it Does
Reflection has the ability to alter your images from something that may otherwise seem ordinary — a lake, a window, a mirror — and turn it into something abstract and creative. Reflective surfaces exist all around us and utilizing them in our images can make for some truly beautiful works of art that draw viewers into the scene and allow them to see the world slightly different than before. 

How to Use It
To use reflection in your own photography, think first of the things that surround you in your daily life that produce reflections. Perhaps that’s a glass of wine, reflecting the warmth of the fireplace. Maybe it’s the water of your pool in the summertime, reflecting the patterns of palm trees above. It could be your sunglasses, with the reflection of your little boy’s blue eyes in them. Whatever it is, chances are reflections are floating all around you at all times. Often, you just need to keep your eyes open for shiny surfaces! 

Who Uses It 
In the award-winning photo series Reflections of the Past” photographer Tom Hussey was inspired by a World War II veteran who stated, “I can’t believe I’m going to be 80. I feel like I just came back from the war. I look in the mirror and I see this old guy.” From there, Tom used reflection to create a breathtaking series that serves to blend together the past and present. In doing so, he does what all of the best artists strive to do — he elicits emotion and feeling. 

When you think of amazing photos that convey emotion, what do you think of? Chances are the scenes are often imbued with any one (or all three) of the elements listed above. They play with light, shadow, or reflection — and as they do so, they bring about happiness, sadness, surprise or intrigue. 

When these elements are used, images are able to stick with you as the viewer for a long time thereafter. 

So, which one will you experiment with first? 

From all of us at Photolemur, we can’t wait to see what you create!

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