Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes

Natural light portrait photographers talk about the need to photograph in open shade for flattering photos a lot. Well, it’s true that open shade is very flattering, but there’s more to open shade photography that many photographers are missing.

At the end I’ve included two simple tweaks to dramatically improve your open shade photography for pro level results.

What is open shade photography?

Before we can get into open shade photography and how to use it properly, we first need to understand what it is.

How to take better open shade photos

Most outdoor shaded areas offer open shade and the “open” bit actually refers to the direction in which you photograph.

So, if you place your subject in the shade facing towards you, with your back to the light, you’re using open shade.

That same shade could also be used as closed shade and we don’t want this.

Many beginner photographers get open shade and closed shade mixed up.

Just because you’re in the shade, doesn’t mean that it’s open shade, so it helps to know what it isn’t – i.e. closed shade.

Natural light photos indoors

Even though this was taken indoors, it’s an example of open shade – she’s in shade, facing towards the light. You can see the reflection of the large window in the cup.

Closed shade is when you place your subject in the shade facing towards you, but with their back to the light.

So, even though they’re in the shade, they’re also backlit.

Further reading: Backlight photography tips for magical photos

The most important defining factor about open shade vs closed shade is that your subject faces towards the light while standing, or sitting etc, in the shade.

disadvantage of closed shade

Both are examples of closed shade – the light is behind the subjects. On the right the photo is made worse by the dappled highlights on the boy’s hair.

Three reasons why open shade is better than closed shade:

  • When a subject faces the light, there’ll be catchlights in their eyes, which makes a photo come alive. A portrait without catchlights can look quite dull.
  • If the light is coming from behind your subject, the background will be brighter than the subject, which is distracting. Our eyes go to the brightest area of an image first.
  • If the background is brighter than the subject, to avoid overexposing the background, you’ll have to add light to the subject either with a reflector or with flash.

Further reading: Using catchlights in photography to easily create eyes that sparkle

Catchlights in open shade portraits

The catchlights in her eyes were created by sunlight reflecting off the grass behind me. They bring life to her expression.

Why use open shade in photography?

As I mentioned before, open shade is very flattering on skin texture. This is because the light is very flat.

No direct light falls on your subject, so it’s also very soft.

Plus, as they’re facing towards the light, it floods over their skin, filling in any lumps and bumps and removing any texture.

Further reading:
Flat light photography – how, when and why use it
Understanding direction of light: how to use front lighting

Even if the light comes from slightly to the side, making it less flat, it will still be very flattering, because it’s indirect, and therefore diffused light.

The top image is a great example of this. I wrote about the location where this was shot – click here to see it.

Examples of open shade

As long as there’s sun in the sky, you can find shade to use. Examples of open shade include:

  • The solid shade of a leafy tree
  • In the shadow of a building
  • Inside a building facing out

Where to position subject in shade

She is carefully positioned in the shade of a pillar. She’s so close to the edge of the shade that the light is catching hair blown forward by the wind, which adds a nice highlight.

But you can’t always rely on shade:

  • To be there for you. If for example you’re on a beach, chances are there’s very little shade around.
  • Or to be in the right place (i.e. where you want it to be). The open shade of the back alley of a building with bins in the background is not an ideal location, even if the shade is good.

So, sometimes we need to create our own shade.

You don’t need any fancy gear for this – anything that can block the sun will work. Of course if you do have a diffuser or a reflector, it makes your life easier as this is what they’re designed for. Even a large, white shoot through umbrella works.

Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Finessing open shade photography to avoid rookie mistakes

These three mistakes are easy to avoid and make a big difference.

1. Color cast

The most important thing to remember when making your own open shade is to ensure that you’re not casting weird colors onto your subject by using a colorful object to block the sun. Your best best is to use something white.

In fact, the same goes for any building you’re using for open shade. Red brick walls will bounce red light back into your subject, which won’t be flattering. A white wall is always best.

If your subject is standing in the open shade of tree, make sure that the shade falls onto the ground in front of them as well. There are two reasons for this:

  • The color of the lit ground will bounce back up into your subject. That said, a neutral colored ground, like concrete, won’t create a color cast, unlike grass.
  • If the light is really bright, it could cause “monster lighting” when bouncing up from beneath your subject. It’s the same effect as holding a torch beneath your chin. Great for ghost stories, but it makes people look weird.

2. Dappled light of not enough shade

When you place a subject in the shade of a tree it’s important to ensure that the shade is solid and not dappled. A tree that isn’t leafy enough will allow patches of sunlight through and onto your subject.

cool color temperature of shade

On the left the white balance was set to daylight, which was too cool for open shade, so I warmed it up in Lightroom.

3. White balance for open shade

Shade is a cooler color temperature than open sun, so you’ll need to adjust your white balance to counteract the bluer light. Although you can do this in camera or in post production, it’s best practice to get as much as possible right in camera.

Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?

How to use alleys for open shade photography

Narrow alleys are great for open shade photos and for channelling light to enhance form. See the white wall at the end of the alley and the other on camera right? I used flash to backlight her and bounce off the walls for fill light on my subject. My light was placed where I stood to take the alley shot on the left. 

Pro level open shade photography tips

So, as you can see, shade photography is easy and very flattering for natural light portraits. But flattering doesn’t necessarily mean interesting.

Because open shade can be very flat lighting, it doesn’t enhance the form of your subject. It’s the play of light and shadow that gives a subject form and interest.

However, with just a few very simple tweaks to control the light, you can start creating above average open shade photos for pro level results.

Further reading: How form in photography brings subjects to life

Two techniques that anyone can use to enhance form:

  • Add light
  • Subtract light

1. Add light

There are two ways to add light when photographing in open shade:

  • Off camera flash
  • Reflector

With your subject positioned in open shade, use a reflector (or flash) behind and to the side of your subject to bounce light back into their hair. This will add a rim of light to separate your subject from the background.

It might be very subtle, but the difference between a photo without rim light and one with can be quite dramatic.

Further reading: Rim light – the simple technique behind dramatic photos

How negative fill deepens shadows

In the photo on the left the shadow on her cheek is darker as her face is closer to her dark jacket and the dark wall, which are acting as negative fill.

2. Subtract light

While bouncing light off anything white will add fill light to your subject, using a dark material (anything black, or dark grey) near your subject, but just out of shot, will deepen shadows on that side.

This is known as negative fill.

Further reading: Using fill light – essentials you need to know

Open shade photography conclusion

You just need to apply a bit of thought and planning to your photography to take your natural light photos up a level.

It’s a great reason to keep a 5 in 1 reflector tucked into your camera bag, because it gives you:

  • 3 different materials to reflect light (gold, silver, white)
  • A diffusion panel for blocking light
  • A black panel to subtract light

If you’re able to choose a location for a shoot, look for one with good options for using open shade. Also, think about the possibility of channelling natural light by photographing in narrow spaces.

A bit of thought will make a big difference to the outcome of your shoot.

Further reading: Outdoor portrait photography tips for better photos

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If you have any questions about shade photography, let us know in the comments.

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