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Controlling Shadows

How to control how soft or hard your shadows are when shooting Product Photography.

Vhector Shots Studio | All Rights Reserved 2021

Photography is a passionate game for the ones who love to control light... or so we think. In reality, we photographers are controlling Shadows all the way through a shoot.

The key to a perfect Product Photograph is to create enough shadows to make your subject come to life, have volume, and look the best it can look.


Modifiers are basically objects that we place between our subject and our source of light. We tend to think of Modifiers are Umbrellas, Soft-boxes, Strip-Boxes. But in reality, Modifiers are anything that "Modify" the light that is hitting our subject.

One clear example are Flags. By placing a Black Flag between our subject and our light source, you would be creating shadows, and dark zones at will... hence, we are "Modifying" light, shadow, and the overall feel of the final image. The same principle applies to White Flags, just the opposite effect would be achieved. By using White Flags, you would be introducing light bounces around your scene, instead of subtracting light like what is achieved with Black Flags.

Now, with light sources there is a curious and often counter-intuitive effect: The closer the light source is to your subject, the softer our shadows will be. The farther away your light source is, the harder your shadows would be... Sounds crazy right?

Well, this is the way it works. And there is a ton of physics behind this concept, which I wouldn't dare to get into in this article.

Just keep in mind the Sun. When the sun is full strength in the sky, you will notice all the shadows around you are tack sharp. This is because the light source (The Sun) is incredibly far away. If the Sun would be nearer The Earth (let's ignore the fact that we would be all roasted instantly) all the shadows at midday would be softer and shorter.

Keeping this example in mind, you can now understand how to place your lights if you want hard shadows or soft shadows. Think of The Sun and you will get your shadows right every time.

Soft-boxes vs Bare Bulb

First, let's clarify what is a Bare Bulb.

A Bare Bulb would be a flash light or strobe with no Modifiers on. So, take the flash, point it to your product, and you would be using a bare bulb. Now, for Product Photography, we have to use Modifiers almost in every single scene. Why? Because softness is very pleasing to the Human Eye. So, gradients and soft light transitions on our subjects are very desirable. This is why you will always see Photography Studios full of Soft-Boxes, Strip-Boxes, and other Modifiers. This does not mean that a Bare Bulb has no place in Commercial Photography. Absolutely not.

Bare Bulbs are used constantly, even more, today that we are in the middle of a Hard Shadows Trend.

Bare Bulbs are very useful to achieve that hard, modern look those big Brands are using in their marketing materials as of late. Now, this does not mean that we should use the Bare Bulb by itself, and this section is more of a strong opinion I have and will always have.

When I use a Bare Bulb, I use it exclusively to achieve the hard shadows my Subject is projecting, but as soon as I achieve those shadows, I put on a Modifier and take the image of my Subject with all the gradients and the nice soft lights I so much love. This technique will require a bit more work in Post-Production, and maybe this is why Commercial Photographers don't use it often, favoring a hard-looking image, rather than a beautiful one. In my case, I like to have my cake and eat it too... So, I don't mind a bit more of work in Post. I gladly put in the work and get the best of both worlds. But again, this is me, this is my personal opinion, and as such, you should take it.

Here I leave you with a recent image I created using this technique. Notice the hard shadows but at the same time the main subject illumination and overall light quality.

Vhector Shots Studio | All Rights Reserved 2021


Lights and Shadows. What a passionate subject. And as I mentioned before, there is a whole field of Physics behind this, which of course, not all photographer master. I sure don't.

At the end of the day, Commercial Photography is a Trial and Error art. We try lights, flags, and more lights until our image looks the best way we can make it look. This is a "perfection" game, and shadows are the medium that makes light do its job. Controlling shadows is a very important part of Commercial Photography... so, let's master them fully. It's important. It's what will make you a Master Product Photographer.

Signing out

Hector C.

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