What information lurks in the shadows?

Only the Shadow knows.

And he has something to say! Shadows are a very important piece of our photographs. Shadows help define our subject. They help set the mood of the photograph. They can hide things we don’t want to show. They can tell a story about how a scene was lit. And that’s what I am talking about today. What can we see in the shadows?

Here are my descriptions for the 14 images on the right (click on the image for a larger version):

  1. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector
    Notice slight double-edge to the shadow due to the flash tube being slightly brighter than the surrounding reflector.

  2. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with one layer of diffusion material
    Contrast is lower from light bouncing around the room, shadow edge is more homogenized by the diffuser. The shadow edge is the same, no extra softening from the diffusion, just a brighter shadow.

  3. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with two layers of diffusion material
    Very similar to #2 but needing more flash power. Extra diffusion did warm up the color. Still has the same edge with no additional softening.

  4. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with 10-degree grid
    Narrow beam of light doesn’t hit walls, ceilings, etc. (environment), so more contrast. Still has the same shadow edge quality, just a darker shadow and restricted coverage on the background.

  5. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with 10-degree grid plus a layer of diffusion
    Brings us back to what we had in #1 or #2, but required 5 more stops of light power to maintain the same exposure. Don’t put diffusion in front of a grid! It negates the effect of the grid at the cost of a lot of your flash power.

  6. Deep Zoom 11-inch reflector
    Narrower light been from the deep reflector gives a darker shadow, somewhat similar to the grid in #4, but like #1 the shadow edge is doubled because of the difference in efficiency between the light direct from the flash tube and the light bounced off the walls of the reflector. Diffusion would help homogenize the shadow, but will also take away some of the contrast.

  7. Deep Zoom 11-inch reflector with 10-degree grid
    Even less environmental bounce producing a darker shadow.

  8. 1x3 strip box in vertical position
    Narrow modifier produces little shadow along its long dimension (up/down here) with much more shadow along its shorter dimension (left/right here).

  9. 1x3 strip box in horizontal position
    Rotating the narrow box moves the shadows. The left/right shadows are a little bit tighter while we now have up/down shadows. This is especially noticeable on the light stand holding the silhouette. In #8 it casts a wide shadow, while in #9 the wide pattern wraps around the narrow object and there is virtually no shadow.

  10. 2x2-foot square softbox in close at 3-feet
    This softbox has both an inner and outer diffusion panel. Shadow transition is soft

  11. 2x2-foot square softbox backed up to 6 feet
    The box gets smaller in relation to the subject when moved back.The shadow gets a harder and more defined edge. The background brightens up slightly (depth of light, inverse square law). More light bounces around the room picking up some warmth from the wooden floor.

  12. 2x2-foot square softbox at 6 feet with an extra layer of diffusion
    Shadow quality remains the same, but image picked up some warmth from either the wood floor bouncing in or from the diffusion material (or both). Requires more flash power.

  13. 46-inch Photek Softlighter umbrella WITHOUT the diffuser
    Large, round light. Even shadows all around. Background is brighter than #14 due to longer light path and depth. Although the umbrella is 36 inches from the subject, the light path is from the flash to the umbrella (24-inches) and from the umbrella to the wall (36-inches) so the distance of light is like having a forward facing light at 5-feet away instead of 3-feet, as you would get with the front diffuser (see #14).

  14. 46-inch Photek Softlighter umbrella with the diffuser
    Adding the diffusion cover has a slight effect on lightening the shadow density. Background is slightly darker as the light source (the diffusion panel) is closer to the subject. The closer the light is to your subject, the darker the background will be.

All the photos were metered to give the same exposure. In most cases the aperture remained the same (f/4.0) and the flash power was adjusted to maintain correct exposure. The exceptions are the exxamples with the Deep Zoom reflector, as it was very efficient and I could not lower the flash power enough so I had to stop down the lens to f/7.1. 

The main take-aways from this lesson is that the shape of your modifier determines the shape of the shadows and the size of the light as seen by the subject determines the size of the shadow width or the quality of light, that is hard or soft. Diffusion, along with the environment, controls the shadow density or contrast. Adding diffusion directly to a light, where it doesn’t make the light any larger, does not soften the light. It is a very subtle, but important concept. Diffusion does homogenize the light, making it more even across its field. And, depending on the environment, fills in the shadows making them less dark by bouncing off the walls, floor, ceiling, and other surroundings. Don’t confuse contrast with quality.

As I said, the difference can be subtle. Here we have three photos to compare. The first (A) was lit with a standard 7-inch diameter silver metal dish reflector. It casts a hard edged deep shadow. Next, I taped a sheet of diffusion material over the reflector (B) and you can see that the edge shape and transition (quality) has remained the same. What changed was the depth or darkness of the shadow (contrast). The diffusion spread the light around the studio and made the shadows lighter in tone, but the edge didn’t change because the light size didn’t change. For the third photo (C) I switched to a 20-inch diameter light modifier without diffusion and you can see here that the edge got softer and the transition got wider as the light was able to “wrap” around the subject for a softer light quality.


Now let’s look at what happens when we keep the same small 7-inch diameter reflector but add single and double diffusion. The first sheet of diffusion material makes the shadow brighter and also homogenizes the shadow edge so there is no longer a double-shadow (from the flash tube and the reflector not being equal in brightness). Adding the second layer of diffusion slightly lightens the shadow, but not appreciably. It does not in any way soften the light.


I can anticipate a comment and question. That’s all well and good for diffusing a small light. I am using a Photek Softlighter and want to double (or triple) the diffusion on that. What happens there? Let’s take a look! Here are four examples starting with the Softlighter umbrella on its own without the diffuser. Next is with the diffuser. Then for double diffusion I hung a roll of diffusion material in front of the Softlighter to double-diffuse it. Then I doubled that up to make it triple-diffused (see the photo on the right). Adding the diffusion panel to the bare umbrella actually limits the spread of the light and makes the shadow a bit darker. Adding additional layers of diffusion on top of that brighten the shadows ever so slightly and start to add some warmth to the color. But again, no change in the quality/softness of the light from extra diffusion. The size of the light remained the same.

This environmental bounce can also cause color casts if the room isn’t neutral in color. In a larger studio, or in a studio with black walls, ceiling, and floors, or in an open field the changes in contrast on the subject with or without diffusion and grids will be much less noticeable.



Well, this brings us to the close of another year. 2018 has been quite a year for me. The biggest event was the passing of my 98-year-old mom, Rose, in August. Thanks for everything you have done for me and for all the support for my taking my own direction in life. I could not have had a better mom. Rest in peace.

So, here is looking to a bright new year with new challenges and accomplishments. I wish you all a Happy New Year! Stay safe and be well.