How To Create Dramatic Photos With Shadows & Blur

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How To Create Dramatic Photos With Shadows & Blur

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Photo credit: Andy Green Photography

One of the most common questions my students ask is, "How can I create beautiful, dramatic photos that engage my audience?" And, whether they're taking pictures professionally or for friends and family to appreciate, the answer is the same: capture dynamic, engaging photos that evoke a strong, sense of drama.

Drama can mean different things to different people, and there's a wide variety of photography and editing techniques to create drama in photography. So, it's no surprise that creating dramatic photographs is much easier said than done and can be quite a struggle for photographers of all skill levels.

That's why today we're going to thoroughly dissect two popular techniques for taking and editing dramatic photos that virtually anyone can use, and all you need is your smartphone. Continue reading below to find out how you can use shadows and blurs to create striking, dramatic photos.

What Is Drama In Photography?

Take a moment to consider your favorite dramatic moments in film or television. Often, you'll notice that these scenes take advantage of shadows, lighting, focus, and blur to create a sense of intimacy that draws you in as a viewer.

The same premise holds true in photography. The combination of deep shadows and blur force the viewer to engage with the work. The drama exists in the viewer's questioning of the unseen and their understanding, or perception of, the unknown elements of the scene.

You can utilize shadows and blurs in your photography to intrigue your audience and introduce an element of mystery. It's this sense of tension, curiosity, and surprise that defines a photo as dramatic and, ultimately, gives it that wow factor that we're all looking for.

In-Depth Guide To Shadows In Photography

Shadows inherently add mystery and a sense of drama to photography, simply because we can't see what they contain. Shadows represent the unknown and, when used properly, can increase depth in textures and enhance the mood in photos.

Additionally, shadows work hand in hand with dramatic light. Think about how the late afternoon sun casts elongated shadows and how shadows cast at different angles depending on the time of day. In photography, you can utilize the many other effects of shadows in juxtaposition with lighting, effectively creating drama from the interplay between light and dark.

How To Capture Shadows For Dramatic Photos

The limited range of lighting that smartphone cameras can capture actually works to our advantage when capturing dramatic photos. And, while these methods should work for most smartphones, there may be slight variations in how you adjust different settings.

Method 1
Now, it's time to take out your smartphone and open your camera app. Once opened, pick something random in the room to shoot. With your subject in frame, tap the smartphone screen on the highlights (brightest area in frame).

This does three things:

  • Ensures that the brightest parts of the photos aren't clipped out
  • Extends the range of shadows
  • Darkens areas darker.

On most smartphones, tapping on the screen will tell the phone where to focus. However, if tapping the brightest part of the photo takes the main subject out of focus, you still have another option.

Method 2
With your camera app open, tap on the main subject and hold for a few seconds. Typically, an exposure slider will pop up on the display, allowing you to adjust the overall brightness.

Depending on the phone orientation, make, and model, swipe left or down to reduce the overall brightness of the photo and increase the depth of your shadows.

If neither method works, you may have to enter a Pro mode or, otherwise, access additional settings for the camera on your phone. From there, adjust the ISO to change the brightness of the photo you're capturing.

Bonus: Side Lighting
Through the use of light and shadow, you can transform even the most mundane subjects and locations into dramatic photos. You can experiment with shadow by using side lighting to bring out deep shadows and emphasize different textures.

Try placing your subject at a 45-degree angle to your light source and turning your subject slightly. Then, position your subject at a 90-degree angle to your light source and observe the change in shadows as a result.

You'll notice how this leaves your subject in the half-light, providing them with a more mysterious quality that lends itself well to dramatic photos.

How To Edit Shadows To Create Drama

There are several editing tools you can utilize to adjust the shadows in your photos. The main three that we're going to focus on are the Shadows, Blacks, and Curves tools found within the Lightroom Mobile app and many other photo editing apps.

What is the difference between the blacks tool and the shadows tool?

The Shadows tool allows you to edit the darker but still 'coloured' sections of the image. These are the areas where some details or shading are present despite how dark they are.

Conversely, the Blacks tool allows you to edit the truly black areas of an image. These are the sections in the photo where the absence of light prevents the visibility of shadows and details completely.

Blacks Tool

You can edit the truly black areas of an image on Lightroom Mobile with the Blacks tool. Although there currently isn't a Blacks tool on Snapseed, continue reading below to find out how to accomplish the same results using a different tool.

Using The Blacks Tool In Lightroom Mobile

Open the photo you want to edit in the Lightroom Mobile app. Click on the Light section, located on the bottom menu bar on your screen. The last slider on the menu that pops up is the Blacks slider; You can adjust the completely black areas in your photo by moving your slider to the left or the right.

A strong adjustment to the left on the Blacks slider is known as 'crushing the blacks.' When you crush the blacks, you're removing shading and texture from the shadows and, in effect, details that might otherwise provide context clues for the audience. This lack of detail and context adds mystery, making your viewers question the elements they can't see in the picture.

Moving the black point pin does affect the overall darkness of the image. Hence, it's paramount that you adjust the black point first, as the shadows that you'll be adjusting next are tied to that black point.

Shadows Tool

As you may already know, Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom Mobile are my two favourite apps for photo editing on the go. And, the most obvious and effective tool for editing shadows in both is aptly named the Shadows tool.

While you edit, keep in mind that the Shadows adjustment is limited to the low tonal range and, in its effect on the overall colour saturation and brightness of the photo.

Using The Shadows Tool In Lightroom Mobile

Open the photo you'd like to edit in Adobe Lightroom Mobile and tap on the Light section. Move the slider to the left to increase the darkness of your shadows for a more impactful, dramatic look.

How To Use The Shadows Tool In Snapseed

In Snapseed, open the photo you'd like to edit and tap on the Tools section, in the center of the menu bar, at the bottom of your screen. On the menu that pops up, click on the Tune Image button, located in the top row, on the right.

When the next display pops up, tap on the Shadows tool. Slide your finger over your photo to the left to increase shadows and add drama for a more interesting and engaging picture.

Curves Tool

If you are editing with the Snapseed app, you can perform a similar adjustment to the Blacks tool by using the Curves tool. For those of you editing in the Lightroom, you can use the curves tool to intensify further the edits you've already made.

Remember, the curves tool is extremely sensitive to adjustments, so a little bit of tweaking can go quite a long way in terms of the overall effect.

Using The Curves Tool In Lightroom

With your photo open in the app, tap on the Light menu. In the top right corner of the screen, tap on the Curve button with the little squiggly line next to it. A gride with a line on it should pop up on your phone, with a preview of your image visible behind it.

Tap on the bottom left portion of the line to create a pin and drag it down. You'll see that in addition to the shadows, the mid-tones also decrease. Additionally, both vibrancy and saturation are slightly affected.

Next, tap the center portion of the line to create a second pin and drag it back towards the center of the graph. If you're satisfied with how your image looks, tap the done button in the bottom corner to save your image. Or, if you'd like to make an additional adjustment, try adding another pin halfway between your mid-point and the point in the top right corner.

How To Use The Curves Tool In Snapseed

With your image open in Snapseed, tap on the Tools button in the centre of the bottom menu. From the Tools menu, tap on the Curves button, located in the center of the top row. Then, select the Neutral preset and tap on the colours icon to select Luminance.

Next, drag the pin in the bottom left corner of the graph along the bottom of the screen, to the right. Continue following the same steps listed above for editing in Lightroom to achieve a more dramatic, mysterious effect in your photo.

Related article: Snapseed Curves tool enhances colour and tones - makes your photos pop

Bonus: Add a vignette

Adding a vignette to the photo deters the viewer from looking toward the edge of the frame, directing focus to the lighter centre portion of the photo. The vignette tools inside both Snapseed and Lightroom only darken the edges of the frame, leaving the centre area untouched and at original brightness.

However, as with most things, there's a time and place for vignettes, and not every photo should have one. I only recommend using this technique when your subject is positioned in the centre of the image; otherwise, it can look a bit odd.

How To Add A Vignette in Snapseed Manually

My favourite technique inside Snapseed is to reduce the Brightness using the Tune Image options, located in the Tools menu. Once this is done, tap on the tick/checkmark to accept. Next, click on the Stacks/Layers icon to access View edits.

From there, tap on Tune Image again and select the brush icon to access masking. Click on the invert icon to see the effect you just made. With the brush set at 0%, 25%, or 75%, tap on the areas you want to return to normal brightness.

Remember to pinch and zoom out for softer, more feathered edges in the masking. The more you zoom in and swipe on the photo, the harder and sharper the edges of your masking will be.

Add A Vignette in Lightroom Mobile Manually

Lightroom Mobile offers a much easier and faster solution if you are on the paid Adobe subscription plan. First, tap on the Selective panel and select the icon that looks like a plus sign (+). Then, tap on the radial selection icon.

Swipe over the area that you want to brighten and tap the Invert icon. Now, drag all four sides and the centre of the selection around to move and change the size of the vignette. Then, tap on the Light icon and swipe left on the Exposure slider.

You may have noticed that with this selection open, you can also adjust the shadows and blacks all in one menu!

In-Depth Guide To Blur in Photography

Blur can be created by the movement of either the subject or the camera movement. And, when all else fails, you can add blurs after the fact in editing.

In bright, outdoor conditions, it can be quite challenging to create blur at the moment of capture. This is because our smartphones are capable of freezing action and can keep objects in focus, even when they're large distances away from the camera (depth of field).

How To Capture Movement Blur

One way you can add blur at the moment of capture, though, is through the use of motion or movement blur. Motion blur is created when a slow shutter camera app obscures the details and creates a blur in the frame. This withholding of revelation from the viewer adds impact and requires them to think further about the image.

For iPhones, I recommend trying apps like SlowShutterCam or Even Longer for long-exposure effect photos. Sadly for anyone using an Android, there's only really one halfway decent option that I recommend to my students, the Long Exposure 2 mobile app.

Additionally, depending on the phone, your camera may allow you to slow the shutter speed down in Pro mode or by using a panning capture action in low-light conditions.

How To Add and Edit Movement Blur

When it comes to adding motion blur, my favorite app is After Focus. The first time you download and use this app, it has a handy built-in tutorial to navigate the tools, and I highly recommend following the tutorial all the way through before using it.

With your photo open in After Focus, tap on the Focus icon. Then, swipe over the parts of the photo that you wish to remain in focus. Next, tap on the Background icon and swipe over the area you want to add the movement blur adjustment to.

You will see an automatic masking selection that can be fine-tuned by pinching and zooming in on the photo. Additionally, you can make adjustments by switching between Focus and Background selections.

Then, tap on the next icon, located in the top right corner of the screen, before selecting Blur. Next, tap Motion Blur and move the slider to make your adjustment. When you're finished, tap on the download icon to save your edited image to your phone.

How To Capture A Blurred Background

Capturing a blurred background naturally can be incredibly difficult and often takes quite a bit of trial and error to master. An easy technique is to place the smartphone very close to the subject and have a distant background.

However, keep in mind that the resulting lens-to-subject distortion will limit the blur. A lens attachment such as the Struman Optics Cinematic Macro lens creates a more �real' optical background blur for a better quality effect.

Also, some smartphones have a portrait or live focus mode that creates a computational blurred background. Sadly, these modes are usually limited in their ability to remain correctly focused as you increase the distance between the camera and the subject.

Furthermore, you can make multiple lenses work together by capturing two reference photos and using them later with editing software to create the effect.

How To Edit A Blurred Background

When it comes to editing blurred backgrounds, my go-to app (again) is After Focus. The process for editing a blurred background in After Focus is similar to the process for editing a motion blur. The main difference is that instead of selecting Motion Blur, you keep the default mode of Lens Blur active.

One of the newest features of After Focus that I love is the Fading Background background tool. Try using the Fading Background tool to create smooth transitions from in-focus areas at the bottom of the frame to more out-of-focus areas towards the top of the frame.

This replicates how 'real' cameras work by having distant objects appear more out of focus. In most scenes, the distant objects are located at the top of the screen, which aids in the viewer's understanding of the scale, location, and relationships between the elements present in the photo.

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