Magazine Article


Lighting Au Natural
Using the Light Versus Shadow Dynamic to Your Benefit

Michael Crouser

Michael Crouser

Michael Crouser

Michael Crouser

As a commercial photographer, one becomes accustomed to thinking in terms of adding, subtracting, and manipulating light to meet the needs of the subject at hand. There is no end to the kinds of lighting gear available, and the gadgets that come along to help us make the image look just so and to meet the client's expectations.

I recently finished work on a long-term photographic project that was much different in that it was entirely observational. There was no client, no end user other than myself; in addition, I couldn't choose the quality of my light. I could only use what I was given, as everything that I was shooting existed outside of my influence. I was a fly on the wall, a photographer in the bullring, as I sought to make a collection of pictures that would become the book Los Toros.

On and off for 15 years, I sat and watched the sun (and thus the shadows) crawl across the sands of Spain, Mexico, Ecuador, and France as I made decisions about how best to handle the light I'd been dealt. In the making of these pictures, there were two main considerations with regard to light and shadow: how to best shoot in the available light and how to use the "light versus shadow" dynamic to my benefit.

There were days in Ecuador, for example, when the bullfights would start at noon; with no clouds for diffusion, the light came from straight above and was brutal and uninteresting. Other times, the best seats I was able to procure were far away from the action and not beneficial in regards to perspective or the most interesting light in the ring. I always preferred to be very close to the action, and in the predictable, soft, even shade of early afternoon.

I decided early on that these images were going to be composition-based. That is to say, even though the topic of the essay, the bullfight, would drive the story, I wanted the images themselves to be stylistically unique from what had come before, which meant an often "straight" or journalistic, factual approach to the subject. This often meant using whatever lighting dynamic was handed to me to make shapes and compositions from the shadows and highlights available. In some instances it meant trying to make lemonade when given lemon. I enjoyed using strong blocks of shadow to shape my compositions, as well as recognizing when the sun was doing me a favor by illuminating and highlighting hands and faces.

Subjects in Light and Shadow

The phrase "negative space" is often used and taught to describe the area of a photograph not occupied by the subject, or that which is filled by shadow. Personally, I don't subscribe to this expression, because I see the shadow, or a dark block of space, as being an element of equal compositional importance as any building, face, or toro. To me it is simply another object (not negative or positive), afterthought, or problem to be solved.

Two examples come to mind. The first image (at right) was made in Burgos, Spain, in 1995. I was seated far up in the middle of the stands, and the action seemed all to be taking place in the middle of the ring that day. If I were to expose for the protagonists of the bullfight, my photographs would have been rather boring and unusable. But by exposing for the sunlight behind the action, I was able to make several interesting silhouettes that made the day useful.

Another time in Aguascalientes, Mexico, the only seat available to me was on the very far end of the ring from the day's action, quite opposite the preferred light of soft, even shade. The placement meant I was shooting directly into the setting sun, which is troublesome enough without adding in the fact that no bullfighter would be near me all day.

I ended up shooting the bull as he came out of the corrals right below me, sun on his back, casting a dramatic shadow. If I remember correctly, I was shading the 24mm lens the whole time to avoid flare-trying desperately to make something usable from an unfortunate lighting setup. In the end, these two images are two of my favorites from the book-perhaps because they distinguish themselves from the other 120 in the book with their specific, problematic illumination. The darks are usable as elements; the awkward light became a tool in itself.

Michael Crouser (; is a commercial photographer who lives in Brooklyn, NY and Minneapolis, MN. Crouser's book, Los Toros was published by Twin Palms Publishers ( He has a second book due out this October entitled Dog Run.