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 for portraits, but there’s more to open shade photography that many photographers are missing.

PS – 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.

Open shade portrait in covered spectator stand

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 photo indoors with open shade

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 from sunlight behind them.

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

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

Why open shade is better than closed shade for portraits

  • When a subject faces the light, they’ll have 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 fill light to the subject either with a reflector or with flash.

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 and no direct light falls on your subject, so it’s also very soft light for portraits.

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

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

The top image is a great example of using open shade for portraits. I wrote about the location where I shot this and why it works so well – click here to see what makes it great.

Examples of open shade photography

As long as there’s sun in the sky, you can find shade for portrait photography. 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 covered walkway

I carefully positioned her in the shade of a pillar. She’s so close to the edge of the shade that the light’s catching her hair, which adds a nice highlight

But you can’t always rely on having 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 for portraits.

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

3 open shade photography mistakes

These three open shade photography 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 a white surface to either block or bounce light.

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 allows 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.

So make sure you turn your white balance setting to the shade icon.

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 my subject and bounce off the walls for fill light. I placed my light where I stood to take the alley shot on the left. 

2 open shade portrait tips

So, as you can see, open 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. Light, and in particular the play of light and shadow across a subjects features gives a subject form and creates 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.

Two techniques that anyone can use to enhance form in photos:

  • Add light
  • Subtract light

1. Add light

You can add light two ways 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.

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, both which are acting as negative fill

2. Subtract light

As I’ve already mentioned, bouncing light off anything white towards your subject adds fill light to lighten shadows. However, using a dark material (anything black, or dark grey) near your subject, but just out of shot, will subtract light and deepen shadows on that side.

This is known as negative fill.

Open shade photography conclusion

You just need to apply a bit of thought and planning to your open shade photography to take your outdoor 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 makes a big difference to the outcome of your shoot.

Leave a comment

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

Also, I love good news, so if my open shade lighting tips have helped you, share that too.

2 thoughts on “Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes”

Leave a Comment