In Praise of Shadows – by Sabrina Henry

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The name Junichiro Tanizaki may not be familiar to many photographers but his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows is a read I highly recommend. Today we have a number of tools at our disposal to bring forth details from the shadows in our pictures but Tanizaki’s essay makes a convincing argument to do otherwise.

There is a whole genre of photography that seeks to reveal and embellish every possible pixel and I have never quite understood the appeal of it. For me, the mysterious exchange between light and shadow plays to my imagination and keeps me engaged with an image far more than when it is completely lit. I liken it to the silence between the notes where it has been said music really resides or the empty spaces carved out within a room where you feel your body can breathe.

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Recently I was visiting friends in the American Midwest and we spent a few afternoons driving around, getting lost on county roads lined with fields of corn and beans and beans and corn. It was hot and the sun followed us everywhere. We stopped at a country church that had a cemetery with grave markers from the early 1800’s. I couldn’t find much of interest to photograph there even though all around there was so much history. The light was too intense and even in the shade of the trees, everything felt so exposed. I wandered around the church itself which served as the local Legion Hall and probably explained the lack of religious symbols that would distinguish it as a place of worship. I had to look very hard to find the sense of peace and tranquility many of us perceive in churches and temples but it was there. A small window with a weathered frame softened by a white lace curtain that hung gently inside. Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but enough shadows to illuminate the quiet mystery of the place.

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As photographers we are fortunate that our tools can help evoke this feeling even when it may not be naturally so present. There are two things I can consistently rely upon when working with light and shadow: exposure compensation and spot metering.

Exposure compensation is used when photographing in an auto exposure mode such as aperture or shutter priority or even program mode. It allows you to control the amount of light and shadow beyond what the camera believes is the correct exposure. On most cameras this exposure is shown on a sliding scale with a reading of 0 when the camera is left to calculate the exposure. By moving the scale either up or down, you are letting the camera know you want to change the exposure. That scale can go up and down to a maximum of  two or three stops and usually in 1/3 increments depending on your settings. I often dial in some exposure compensation when photographing especially when I make a few pictures and realize what I see on the back of my camera is not what I had envisioned in my head.

Spot metering is when the camera uses a very small area of the frame to decide the proper exposure, typically 1% or 2%. By focusing on a key detail within the picture, you can control how the entire image is rendered. For a majority of the time, you will select the matrix-metering mode. In this mode, the camera looks at several areas within the frame and measure the intensity of the light and calculates what it believes to be the proper exposure. Different cameras will measure in different ways (they will use more or less points or different calibrations) so if you use more than one camera to photograph a scene, you might notice the images do not look the same. I use spot metering quite often to the point where I have programmed one of my Function buttons to switch between matrix and spot metering.

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You can try to accomplish a similar look in post-production but remember that when you are out making pictures, you are essentially collecting information on the scene you are photographing. The dynamic range of light you gather at the time you are making your photograph is fixed and you cannot retrieve what is not there. It is always better to try to capture as much as you can in-camera rather than rely solely on Lightroom or Photoshop to do the job for you.