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  • Writer's pictureDave Pidgeon

A love language of light and shadow

I enjoy teaching photographers, those who are just starting or those who are looking to step up to another level, one of my sacred mantras for image making.

Light attracts the eye. But shadow attracts curiosity.

The above mantra helps explain why I photograph everything - people, places, what I'm eating - with so much contrast between light and shadow.

It's a significant contributing factor for why my portrait work is all-but exclusively with off camera strobes.

Years ago as a wedding photographer, it was how I preferred to use natural light.

The mother of the bride helps her with her wedding veil.
The mother of the bride helps her with her wedding veil.

It's how I see a scene, whether in a city or national park. If I'm true to my desire to be something of a visual storyteller, how I use shadow and light are similar to the roles protagonist and setting have for a writer.

When I started as a portrait photographer way back in 2015, fumbling around with trying to start a sustainable business, I came up during a time when light and airy wedding photography was the trend.

More-established wedding photographers were selling presets. Blown out highlights. Desaturated color. Soft.

Ever look at a window where direct sunlight is pouring through, and you have to squint to see what's there? That's what light and airy photography made me do.

I found myself more and more drifting toward a different kind of mastery. I wanted to learn from the styles of wedding photographers like Cliff Mautner and Susan Stripling, from the likes of Joe McNally, and more recently, sport photographers like Matt Hernandez, Jean Fruth, and Paul Rutherford.

Go ahead and take a look. Light and shadow. High contrast. They all have it in common.

A local high school volleyball team at their home gym.
A local high school volleyball team at their home gym.

This isn't to say that you absolutely must deploy dark-and-moody styles to your photography.

This is to say when you set out on a photographer's journey, like I did, start paying attention to whose work you love and ask yourself what they have in common.

What is it about those images that make you stop scrolling on your phone? What is it that draws out an emotional response?

And for me, I had to concede something. That in spite of the light-and-airy trends, I am not a light-and-airy person.

My heart and soul drifts toward something else.

That's how I began to develop that sacred mantra - Light attracts the eye, shadow attracts curiosity.

Light trails moving past a theater in Lancaster city.
Traffic moves past the Fulton Theatre in downtown Lancaster, Pa.

I believe it also is more compatible with how our eyes work. Here's what I mean:

More often than not, our eyes immediately race toward the lightest part of an image. Knowing this, you can make smart decisions about what your subject is and where you want the eyes of you audience to go.

But an image and the story within it is often more than just the subject. As Cliff Mautner would advise you, think three dimensionally (foreground, subject, background).

For me, I believe, the eyes after moving toward the lightest part of a photograph will then begin to investigate what's around it. Our curiosity can't help itself. The details of a wedding dress. The features of a landscape. The nooks and crannies of a city street. The texture of skin.

Then, our eyes and minds seem to take a step back, seeing perhaps for the first time the image as a whole. The subject and his/her/its place in his/her/its environment.

When I make an image, I want you to pause. I want you to stop and look, to contemplate, to feel.

To achieve that, I deploy dark-and-moody.

Dave Pidgeon is a seasoned writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at

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