The “soul” of a shot

Without a doubt something I love to do is to create a mood in a shot.
Much to my surprise I get a lot of questions were people show me totally “flat flashed” images and ask me “how do I go from this to your work, which filter do you use ?” well…… the magic Frank Doorhof filter is still in beta and ….. well ok I will tell you in this blog post.

There is no magic filter
Let’s first burst the bubble that there is NO magic filter in Photoshop.
How much I love Photoshop it’s as simple as garbage in is garbage out.
In other words, people telling you “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” are missing some critical points. Although let’s refine this. You can fix A LOT in Photoshop (which I do on a daily basis) however you can’t go from mediocre shot to top shot. As you know I strongly believe that the shot should be there when you press the shutter and Photoshop should be used to refine the image and enhance it were needed. This is anyway how I use Photoshop.
So how do we go from a “flat flashed” image to something else ?

Give it soul
When I met with Rick Sammon last week we talked a lot about photography as you can imagine, but we also talked about shadows, and we agreed that a lot of our students don’t really understand how incredibly important shadows are, according to Rick light illuminates and shadows define and this is 100% true, my expression is that shadows put the “soul” into the image and are in fact in most cases the thing that draws someone to an image and keep them looking at it. For myself I found out that when I started with model photography I was drawn to broad light sources and bright colors (man I loved the ringflash), however the more I grew the more I leaned towards the shadows, I have to add to this that even when I was starting out I very quickly started to use accent lights, because I thought the images were simply put too flat without them, I needed to definition.

Let’s make clear that I still love to shoot with broad light sources and bright colors, but my personal favorite style of photography must be the more low key shots. By working with small amounts of light to draw the viewers attention to those areas you want them to look is always a challenge that I love to work with, but also the poses and flow of a body can be so much more enhanced by using the right light on the right location.

Learning to control the light this way can be challenging and will go wrong very often and will destroy the image, maybe this is what a lot of people experience as too much trouble and stop going that way, and let’s be honest, when you use broad light sources and beautiful models you can’t go wrong for the viewer. However when I look at this images I’m loving it but always missing something…. let’s call it soul.

First things first
Shadows are a part of everyday live.
But let’s start with something simple that you see a lot online and often people don’t realize that something’s wrong, but also feel that the shot doesn’t quite add up to being real. We’ve all shot on white backgrounds and loved it. One of the things I see a lot however is that the models seem to be cut out and float into thin air, a lot of photographers shooting models full body on white seamless forget one very important thing….. shadows.
Yeah I know it sound weird, you shoot against white to make the model jump out of the scene and you try hard to get everything around the model white, so why shadows ? Well it’s simple nature, when a someone stands on the floor there should always be some sort of shadow, otherwise you would seem to float in thin air, or the image looks like a cut out (if that is the idea no problem, but than you’re looking at a not yet finished product). I always try to leave in the shadows under the shoes of the model, and in most cases I just love to use plexiglass. First of all the plexiglass makes lighting the floor much easier but it also gives a very “cool” reflection/mirror effect which I love and it “connects” my model with reality.

Drop shadows
Taking it one step further we will venture into the drop shadows.
When starting out you will always try to get those drop shadows out of the image, however for me personally I really love a good drop shadow. I do have to add that the shadow has to be part of the shot. In other words I don’t want JUST a drop shadow, no I want it to play with the image, add to the mood or get the attention of the viewer because it really enhanced the image by creating a “shadow play” that looks different than you would expect.

in this image I love the way the shadow enhances the curves in the body

In this image the shadow gives a different pose than what you see the model take, choosing the angle of light and the camera can give results like this and for me this really added something to this shot.

Embrace the darkness
Well ok that sounds weird, creepy and probably not as I mean it 😀
What I mean with this is that you should experiment with shooting with just 1 light source instead  of 2-3-4. One of my moto’s during the workshops is always “when you think you need 2 light sources, start with 1” this will often create a lot more “mood” in a shot and also give you more “depth” to the shot what is one of the most seen problems you see online in images. Now when we go through on this moto and we leave the drop shadows, accent lights etc. behind us we come into the realm of really playing with light. As you probably read in the blog post from yesterday I played with this concept during the advanced II workshop this weekend where I used a snoot with spot to really draw the attention of the viewer to one point in the image.

And yes there is A LOT of black in this shot, and yes there is hardly any definition in those areas, most of it is 100% black, but is that bad? I strongly believe that when you let go of the idea that there should be no 100% black or 100% white in a shot you will start to get better in your photography. And we all know those forum posts where someone “destroys” someone else’s images by saying some part lost definition or is clipped. Now look at the really great photographers and study their work (you will actually not even need to study it) and you will see that those photographers are often showing hard shadows, clipped whites etc. but the end result…….. yeah there we go….. has soul.

Shadows can be a real problem.
Shadows can be mastered because you can see them in most shooting setups.
Shadows can give you definition.
Shadows can give you depth.
When you master the use of shadows you WILL become a better photographer.
When you master the use of shadows and combine it with the right model, posing and expression you will see your images transform from just good images to images with soul, and what do we as photographers want more ??
Have fun with shadows this week and if you have time show the images on in the topic about shadows.
I’m looking forward to seeing your work there.


9 replies
  1. Kurt
    Kurt says:

    I do love shadows, i do love blacks, but very often it is not appreciated in photography fora. I hope this will change as long as it is not turning in a new religion. (Less shadow) or shadow less images can be nice as well.

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Depends on the forum, and the people judging.
      Beginners often have a problem with judging a shot, they are too often only looking at what they think is good technique, meaning no blacks and no clipped whites.
      And they forget to look for the “soul”.

  2. Yourt
    Yourt says:

    Nice one Frank. Workshop in Belgium coming in the (nearby) future? Last saturday I played around a little, using what I’ve learnt from your workshop, and it really works. turning BG to white or black, angling model and sunlight + reflector, light measuring and with or without flashing on model before hardlit window,… but soem finetuning would be nice… so: GET OVER HERE AND TEACH… ;-P

  3. David
    David says:

    Thanks for the blog! I really really liked it! 😀
    I already achieved some cool results, but not with a studio flash but rather my SB600 flash. Since I couldn’t get any real shadows on my model because of the way my studio is decorated (read: all white) I wanted to try strobism and it worked. Sure, my shadows were harsh (since I didn’t use a diffuser), but to be able to just light up parts of a face or body and leave out all the rest really appealed to me. My pictures had depth!

    I still want to try with one studio flash, although I am pulling out my hair trying to find a way to “isolate” the model without wasting money on something that isn’t needed.

    And yeah, get over here and teach us some. 😉

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Isolating your model can be done with one strobe.
      If you want a darker background aim the light away from it, flag it and move the model forward.
      A good metering technique will help.
      Most GREAT shots are done with surprisingly little gear.

  4. Lou
    Lou says:

    Great post, Frank. As I mentioned to you via Twitter recently, I really love your videos on Kelby’s online training site and love that I can read regular updates on your blog. Very cool. As a new Elinchrom Quadra kit owner, your tips are going to come in handy as I hone my skills and develop my own style. Cheers.

  5. Nik
    Nik says:

    Frank, Thank you always for sharing you powerful knowledge. I really love photos with shadows and you have taken away all the fear I’ve had in the past of debating if it’s it too much or to little. Attached is a photo I took live in Hollywood earlier this year. It is Guitar player Michael Thomas from ‘Adlers Appetite’. Steven Adler from Guns n Roses new band. It’s my favorite shot of my short career so far. I like the mystery of who the musician is in this photo. Please, take a look and comment if you may. Thanks Again! NR!/photo.php?fbid=191899164155906&set=a.191899014155921.50773.168024019876754&type=1&theater

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Wow, very cool shot.
      Love the “low key” feel indeed.
      Maybe would have loved to see the face just a bit more, but even without it’s a ROCKING shot man. Well done would be proud to have that one in my portfolio.

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