BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: New Questions

Photography Question 
Jay Buinauskas

Shadows from Flash

I heard that certain backdrops will mitigate flash shadows. Is that possible? I am about to take some organization photos in a very dark and dreary place, and last year I almost got away with it by using a flash high off-camera. I'm a rank amateur and would like to do better. Thanks.

To love this question, log in above
2/5/2007 6:57:54 AM

John H. Siskin
BetterPhoto Member
John's Photo Courses:
4-Week Short Course: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
  Hi Jay,
A dark background will be less annoying if you do have shadows. A black background wonít have shadows, but I donít think it is as flattering as a dark background. I think you are on the right track by taking the strobe off-camera and bringing it above your subjects. You could do a lot better with a bigger strobe and an umbrella, but that is a significant investment. You might want to look at my article on backgrounds at
John Siskin

To love this comment, log in above
2/5/2007 9:38:15 AM

Ariel Lepor
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/8/2005
  You could try to put a diffuser over the flash.

Another option would be to photograph the people and background separately. Then photoshop the people onto the background, and there will be no shadows.

To love this comment, log in above
2/5/2007 10:54:02 PM

Alan N. Marcus   Hi Jay,

Sorry to report that shadows on backgrounds are a fact of life. Background shadows are almost always cast when the built-in camera flash is the principle light source. A flat-black background will work.

I advise you to go to the library and look at both oil and photographic portraits. Donít forget to scrutinize advertisements in major magazines. This research will give you ideas that will enhance your own work.

Now most studios will use a multiple light set-up. The very basic will utilizes three lights. The main, a lamp set at abut 7 feet height to illuminate the subject. The fill, a subordinate lamp placed near the camera at lens height to control of the depth of the shadows cast by the main. A background light placed behind the subject and directed at the background. Its intensity controls the darkness or lightness of the background in the finished image and it neutralizes shadows cast on the background cast by other lamps.

Shadows on a background can be reduced just by watchful placement of the main light. Generally when placed to avoid background shadows it will not be flattering. Highly defused light is devoid of shadows but the results are often flat (low contrast).

Best direct you attention towards a multi-light studio set-up.

Alan Marcus

To love this comment, log in above
2/6/2007 7:46:36 AM

Bruce A. Dart   Hi Jay,
Shadows are indeed a fact of life but finding ways to minimize them and use them to your advatage is what better photography is all about. Professionals elevate the flash off camera for a couple of simple reasons: in portraiture that angle is more flattering for your subjects and gives more shape and definition than a "flat lit" on camera flash; secondly, by raising the flash it casts the shadows down behind yor subjects and not in the photo. Backgrounds do play an important role as well. Some are more apt to show shadows than others. As previously mentioned, shadows don't show as much against a darker background. Another important factor that I have not seen mentioned is subject to background distance. The closer your subjects are to the background, i.e. a back wall of a room, the more likely the shadow will be prominent. Using the falloff of light to your advantage, move the subject out away from the wall a bit and the shadows will be less prominent.
Bruce Dart

To love this comment, log in above
2/6/2007 6:11:41 PM

Ariel Lepor
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/8/2005
  Bruce, reading what you wrote, I remember reading somewhere that for portrait shots, you can place a mirror in front of the flash (aiming the flash up) so it bounces off the ceiling, gives lighting from not-straight-on, and gives softer lighting.

To love this comment, log in above
2/6/2007 6:22:28 PM

Bruce A. Dart   Hi Ariel,
You are right.that is a technique to achieve softer lighting. However, the flash to subject distance, and therefore the exposure changes just the same as if you moved back several feet. Most TTl mode cameras and automatic flashes compensate for that somewhat but you may have to open up a stop in a manual mode to get the same exposure. Another factor is the color of whatever wall you are bouncing light off. Most ceilings are white and have no problem but a different color will bounce that color back into your image. Light coming down from above also tends to increase the shadows in the eyes (crucial for most portraits) and you may have to use a reflector of some sort, and even aluminum foil on a piece of cardboard works.) There are tons of different light modifiers, as they are sometimes called, for all flash units -- studio and otherwise. The fun part is all the different effects they each create. For an on camera flash I have even seen a spoon fastened to the flash (with the unit pointed up) with a rubber band to bounce a softer light toward the subject and spread it over a wider area. Don't be afraid to experiment!!

To love this comment, log in above
2/7/2007 5:10:28 AM

Log in to respond or ask your own question.