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Shadows of visitors to the Eiffel Tower, viewed from the first platform Looking down from The Eiffel Tower, Paris 8 April 2007.jpg
Shadows of visitors to the Eiffel Tower, viewed from the first platform
Park fence shadow is distorted by an uneven snow surface Park grid.JPG
Park fence shadow is distorted by an uneven snow surface

A shadow is a dark (real image) area where light from a light source is blocked by an opaque object. It occupies all of the three-dimensional volume behind an object with light in front of it. The cross section of a shadow is a two-dimensional silhouette, or a reverse projection of the object blocking the light.


Point and non-point light sources

Umbra, penumbra and antumbra. Diagram of umbra, penumbra & antumbra.png
Umbra, penumbra and antumbra.

A point source of light casts only a simple shadow, called an "umbra". For a non-point or "extended" source of light, the shadow is divided into the umbra, penumbra, and antumbra. The wider the light source, the more blurred the shadow becomes. If two penumbras overlap, the shadows appear to attract and merge. This is known as the shadow blister effect.

The outlines of the shadow zones can be found by tracing the rays of light emitted by the outermost regions of the extended light source. The umbra region does not receive any direct light from any part of the light source and is the darkest. A viewer located in the umbra region cannot directly see any part of the light source.

By contrast, the penumbra is illuminated by some parts of the light source, giving it an intermediate level of light intensity. A viewer located in the penumbra region will see the light source, but it is partially blocked by the object casting the shadow.

If there is more than one light source, there will be several shadows, with the overlapping parts darker, and various combinations of brightnesses or even colors. The more diffuse the lighting is, the softer and more indistinct the shadow outlines become until they disappear. The lighting of an overcast sky produces few visible shadows.

The absence of diffusing atmospheric effects in the vacuum of outer space produces shadows that are stark and sharply delineated by high-contrast boundaries between light and dark.

For a person or object touching the surface where the shadow is projected (e.g. a person standing on the ground, or a pole in the ground) the shadows converge at the point of contact.

A shadow shows, apart from distortion, the same image as the silhouette when looking at the object from the sun-side, hence the mirror image of the silhouette seen from the other side.


Three moons (Callisto, Europa and Io) and their shadows parade across Jupiter. Three moons and their shadows parade across Jupiter.jpg
Three moons (Callisto, Europa and Io) and their shadows parade across Jupiter.

The names umbra, penumbra and antumbra are often used for the shadows cast by astronomical objects, though they are sometimes used to describe levels of darkness, such as in sunspots. An astronomical object casts human-visible shadows when its apparent magnitude is equal or lower than -4. [2] The only astronomical objects able to project visible shadows onto Earth are the Sun, the Moon, and in the right conditions, Venus or Jupiter. [3] Night is caused by the hemisphere of a planet facing its orbital star blocking its sunlight.

A shadow cast by the Earth onto the Moon is a lunar eclipse. Conversely, a shadow cast by the Moon onto the Earth is a solar eclipse. [4]

Daytime variation

The sun casts shadows that change dramatically through the day. The length of a shadow cast on the ground is proportional to the cotangent of the sun's elevation angle—its angle θ relative to the horizon. Near sunrise and sunset, when θ = 0° and cot(θ) = ∞, shadows can be extremely long. If the sun passes directly overhead (only possible in locations between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn), then θ = 90°, cot(θ) = 0, and shadows are cast directly underneath objects.

Such variations have long aided travellers during their travels, especially in barren regions such as the Arabian Desert. [5]

Propagation speed

Steam phase eruption of Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park casts a shadow on its own steam. Crepuscular rays are also visible. Steam phase eruption of Castle Geyser with crepuscular rays and shadow.jpg
Steam phase eruption of Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park casts a shadow on its own steam. Crepuscular rays are also visible.

The farther the distance from the object blocking the light to the surface of projection, the larger the silhouette (they are considered proportional). Also, if the object is moving, the shadow cast by the object will project an image with dimensions (length) expanding proportionally faster than the object's own rate of movement. The increase of size and movement is also true if the distance between the object of interference and the light source are closer. This, however, does not mean the shadow may move faster than light, even when projected at vast distances, such as light years. The loss of light, which projects the shadow, will move towards the surface of projection at light speed.

Although the edge of a shadow appears to "move" along a wall, in actuality the increase of a shadow's length is part of a new projection that propagates at the speed of light from the object of interference. Since there is no actual communication between points in a shadow (except for reflection or interference of light, at the speed of light), a shadow that projects over a surface of large distances (light years) cannot convey information between those distances with the shadow's edge. [6]


Visual artists are usually very aware of colored light emitted or reflected from several sources, which can generate complex multicolored shadows. Chiaroscuro, sfumato, and silhouette are examples of artistic techniques which make deliberate use of shadow effects.

During the daytime, a shadow cast by an opaque object illuminated by sunlight has a bluish tinge. This happens because of Rayleigh scattering, the same property that causes the sky to appear blue. The opaque object is able to block the light of the sun, but not the ambient light of the sky which is blue as the atmosphere molecules scatter blue light more effectively. As a result, the shadow appears bluish. [7]

Three-dimensional shadows

Fog shadow of the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge Fog shadow of GGB.jpg
Fog shadow of the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge

A shadow occupies a three-dimensional volume of space, but this is usually not visible until it projects onto a reflective surface. A light fog, mist, or dust cloud can reveal the 3D presence of volumetric patterns in light and shadow.

Fog shadows may look odd to viewers who are not used to seeing shadows in three dimensions. A thin fog is just dense enough to be illuminated by the light that passes through the gaps in a structure or in a tree. As a result, the path of an object's shadow through the fog becomes visible as a darkened volume. In a sense, these shadow lanes are the inverse of crepuscular rays caused by beams of light, they're caused by the shadows of solid objects.

Theatrical fog and strong beams of light are sometimes used by lighting designers and visual artists who seek to highlight three-dimensional aspects of their work.

Shadow inversions

Oftentimes shadows of chain-linked fences and other such objects become inverted (light and dark areas are swapped) as they get farther from the object. A chain-link fence shadow will start with light diamonds and shadow outlines when it is touching the fence, but it will gradually blur. Eventually, if the fence is tall enough, the light pattern will go to shadow diamonds and light outlines.


Moonlight shadow of a photographer Moonlight shadow.jpg
Moonlight shadow of a photographer

In photography, which is essentially recording patterns of light, shade, and color, "highlights" and "shadows" are the brightest and darkest parts, respectively, of a scene or image. Photographic exposure must be adjusted (unless special effects are wanted) to allow the film or sensor, which has limited dynamic range, to record detail in the highlights without them being washed out, and in the shadows without their becoming undifferentiated black areas.

On satellite imagery and aerial photographs, taken vertically, tall buildings can be recognized as such by their long shadows (if the photographs are not taken in the tropics around noon), while these also show more of the shape of these buildings.

Analogous concepts

Shadow as a term is often used for any occlusion or blockage, not just those with respect to light. For example, a rain shadow is a dry area, which with respect to the prevailing wind direction, is beyond a mountain range; the elevated terrain impedes rainclouds from entering the dry zone. An acoustic shadow occurs when a direct sound has been blocked or diverted around a given area.

Cultural aspects

An unattended shade was thought by some cultures to be similar to that of a ghost. The name for the fear of shadows is "sciophobia" or "sciaphobia".

Chhaya is the Hindu goddess of shadows.

In heraldry, when a charge is supposedly shown "in the shadow" (the appearance is of the charge merely being outlined in a neutral tint rather than being of one or more tinctures different from the field on which it is placed), it is technically described as "umbrated". Supposedly, only a limited number of specific charges can be so depicted. [ citation needed ]

Shadows are often linked with darkness and evil; in common folklore and modern graphic novels, like shadows who come to life, are often evil beings trying to control the people they reflect. The film Upside-Down Magic features an antagonistic shadow spirit who possesses people.

Energy generating

Scientists from the National University of Singapore presented a shadow-effect energy generator (SEG), which consists of cells of gold deposited on a silicon wafer attached on a plastic film. The generator has a power density of 0.14 μW cm−2 under indoor conditions (0.001 sun). [8]

See also


Related Research Articles

Eclipse Astronomical event where one body is hidden by another

An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object or spacecraft is temporarily obscured, by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer. This alignment of three celestial objects is known as a syzygy. Apart from syzygy, the term eclipse is also used when a spacecraft reaches a position where it can observe two celestial bodies so aligned. An eclipse is the result of either an occultation or a transit.

Lunar eclipse When the Moon moves into the Earths shadow

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon moves into the Earth's shadow. This can occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are exactly or very closely aligned with Earth between the other two, and only on the night of a full moon. The type and length of a lunar eclipse depend on the Moon's proximity to either node of its orbit.

Umbra, penumbra and antumbra

The umbra, penumbra and antumbra are three distinct parts of a shadow, created by any light source after impinging on an opaque object. Assuming no diffraction, for a collimated beam of light, only the umbra is cast.

Shading Depicting depth through varying levels of darkness

Shading refers to the depiction of depth perception in 3D models or illustrations by varying the level of darkness. Shading tries to approximate local behavior of light on the object's surface and is not to be confused with techniques of adding shadows, such as shadow mapping or shadow volumes, which fall under global behavior of light.

Shadow volume Computer graphics technique

Shadow volume is a technique used in 3D computer graphics to add shadows to a rendered scene. They were first proposed by Frank Crow in 1977 as the geometry describing the 3D shape of the region occluded from a light source. A shadow volume divides the virtual world in two: areas that are in shadow and areas that are not.

Ray casting

Ray casting is the methodological basis for 3-D CAD/CAM solid modeling and image rendering. It is essentially the same as ray tracing for computer graphics where virtual light rays are "cast" or "traced" on their path from the focal point of a camera through each pixel in the camera sensor to determine what is visible along the ray in the 3-D scene. The term "Ray Casting" was introduced by Scott Roth while at the General Motors Research Labs from 1978-1980. His paper, "Ray Casting for Modeling Solids", describes modeled solid objects by combining primitive solids, such as blocks and cylinders, using the set operators union (+), intersection (&), and difference (-). The general idea of using these binary operators for solid modeling is largely due to Voelcker and Requicha's geometric modelling group at the University of Rochester. See Solid modeling for a broad overview of solid modeling methods. This figure on the right shows a U-Joint modeled from cylinders and blocks in a binary tree using Roth's ray casting system, circa 1979.

Whiteout (weather)

Whiteout, white-out, or milky weather is a weather condition in which the contours and landmarks in a snow-covered zone become almost indistinguishable. It could be also applied when visibility and contours are greatly reduced by sand. The horizon disappears from view while the sky and landscape appear featureless, leaving no points of visual reference by which to navigate; there is absence of shadows because the light arrives in equal measure from all possible directions. Whiteout has been defined as: "A condition of diffuse light when no shadows are cast, due to a continuous white cloud layer appearing to merge with the white snow surface. No surface irregularities of the snow are visible, but a dark object may be clearly seen. There is no visible horizon."

Gobo (lighting) Stencil or template placed inside or in front of a light source to control the shape of the emitted light

A gobo is an object placed inside or in front of a light source to control the shape of the emitted light and its shadow.

Electromagnetic waves (light) to travel in a straight line. Light only deviates from a straight line when the medium it is travelling through changes density. This is called refraction. Light does not deviate when travelling through a homogeneous medium, which has the same refractive index throughout.

Shadow mapping

Shadow mapping or shadowing projection is a process by which shadows are added to 3D computer graphics. This concept was introduced by Lance Williams in 1978, in a paper entitled "Casting curved shadows on curved surfaces." Since then, it has been used both in pre-rendered and realtime scenes in many console and PC games.

Hard and soft light

Hard and soft light are different types of lighting that are commonly used in photography and filmmaking. Soft light is light that tends to "wrap" around objects, projecting diffused shadows with soft edges. Soft light comes from a light source that is large relative to the subject, whereas hard light from one that is small relative to the subject.

Magnitude of eclipse

The magnitude of eclipse is the fraction of the angular diameter of a celestial body being eclipsed. This applies to all celestial eclipses. The magnitude of a partial or annular solar eclipse is always between 0.0 and 1.0, while the magnitude of a total solar eclipse is always greater than or equal to 1.0.

Solar eclipse Natural phenomenon wherein the Sun is obscured by the Moon

A solar eclipse occurs when a portion of the Earth is engulfed in a shadow cast by the Moon which fully or partially blocks sunlight. This occurs when the Sun, Moon and Earth are aligned. Such alignment coincides with a new moon (syzygy) indicating the Moon is closest to the ecliptic plane. In a total eclipse, the disk of the Sun is fully obscured by the Moon. In partial and annular eclipses, only part of the Sun is obscured.

The penumbra is the part of a shadow where the light source is only partially blocked.

October 2014 lunar eclipse

A total lunar eclipse took place on October 8, 2014. It is the second of two total lunar eclipses in 2014, and the second in a tetrad. Other eclipses in the tetrad are those of April 15, 2014, April 4, 2015, and September 28, 2015. Occurring only 2.1 days after perigee, the Moon's apparent diameter was larger, 1960.6 arcseconds.

November 1955 lunar eclipse

A partial lunar eclipse took place on November 29, 1955 with an umbral eclipse magnitude of 0.11899. A partial lunar eclipse happens when the Earth moves between the Sun and the Full Moon, but they are not precisely aligned. Only part of the Moon's visible surface moves into the dark part of the Earth's shadow. A partial lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth moves between the Sun and Moon but the three celestial bodies do not form a straight line in space. When that happens, a small part of the Moon's surface is covered by the darkest, central part of the Earth's shadow, called the umbra. The rest of the Moon is covered by the outer part of the Earth's shadow called the penumbra. It was the second of two lunar eclipses in 1955, first being the penumbral lunar eclipse on June 5.

Gamma (eclipse)

Gamma of an eclipse describes how centrally the shadow of the Moon or Earth strikes the other body. This distance, measured at the moment when the axis of the shadow cone passes closest to the center of the Earth or Moon, is stated as a fraction of the equatorial radius of the Earth or Moon.

Solar eclipse of July 28, 1851 19th-century total solar eclipse

The earliest scientifically useful photograph of a total solar eclipse was made by Julius Berkowski at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia, on Monday, July 28, 1851. It was the first correctly exposed photographic image taken during totality thereby including the Sun's corona.

Earths shadow

Earth's shadow is the shadow that Earth itself casts through its atmosphere and into outer space, toward the antisolar point. During the twilight period, the shadow's visible fringe – sometimes called the dark segment or twilight wedge – appears as a dark and diffuse band just above the horizon, most distinct when the sky is clear.

Shadow blister effect

The shadow blister effect is a visual phenomenon in which a shadow bulges as it approaches another.


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  2. NASA Science Question of the Week. (April 7, 2006). Retrieved on 2013-04-26.
  3. "Young astronomer captures a shadow cast by Jupiter : Bad Astronomy". 2011-11-18. Archived from the original on 2013-07-02. Retrieved 2013-05-27.
  4. "Lunar Eclipse vs Solar Eclipse". Retrieved 2019-11-27.
  5. The Edinburgh monthly review. 1820. p. 372.
  6. Philip Gibbs (1997) Is Faster-Than-Light Travel or Communication Possible? Archived 2009-11-17 at WebCite
  7. Question Board – Questions about Light. Retrieved on 2013-04-26.
  8. Qian Zhang; et al. (2020). "Energy harvesting from shadow-effect". Energy & Environmental Science. doi:10.1039/D0EE00825G.