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How to Find and Use Open Shade

How do I find natural light? How do I use it once I’ve found it? In this series, we help break down both so YOU can be a better, more confident photographer! If you’re new to this series, you can catch up here:

Part 1: Let There Be Light
Part 2: Backlighting Basics
Part 3: Open Shade
Part 4: Window Lighting Essentials
Part 5: Natural Reflectors
Part 6: Artificial Reflectors
Part 7: White Balance

The first time we went on a real shoot with real clients, we felt terrified. We’d spent hours and hours poring over photography blogs, watching online tutorials, and practicing on anyone who would stay still long enough for us to get our settings right and get our subject in focus. We felt like we were drowning in a sea of poses and technical jargon all while just trying to be normal and likable to our clients. Don’t forget to smile when they walk up. Be encouraging. Keep talking to them. What are their names again? We can’t forget that! Where’s the good light here? Is there good light here? Heck, what are we saying, we’re just trying to BREATHE right now! What about our settings? Aperture. ISO. Shutter speed. It’s all so much! What did we get ourselves into? 

Have you ever felt this way right before a shoot? Do you still feel this way sometimes? Fortunately, after years of shooting, the cameras feel like extensions of our arms. It comes so naturally that we’re able to focus on our clients, push ourselves and our limits, and improve our craft. At the beginning, though, we sure wish that someone would’ve pointed us to open shade, because it’s consistent light that’s easy to use because it doesn’t change. Newer photographers have a hard enough time shooting manually and getting their exposure correct once, much less every time the light and location change. Open shade creates a soft, even light that allows you to position your subjects in any direction without a dramatic change in the light. It allows you to get your settings once, so you can spend the rest of your time focusing on composition and posing. Here are some ways we find and use open shade when we’re out shooting…

How to Find and Use Open Shade

1. Look Up

When you’re standing outside, look up. If you can see the sky and you’re in shade, you’ve found it! If there are obstacles obstructing your view, then you haven’t. Common obstacles to open shade are tree branches, over-head bridges, and awnings on door frames or building facades. Try to avoid shooting under these obstacles. Tree branches, for example, will create uneven spots and shadows that will be distracting. And although it’s fun to shoot in front of cool doors, awnings will create light that’s dark on your subject’s faces, and you always want your subjects’s faces (eyes especially) to be the most well-lit part of any image. Try pulling your subject farther away from a cute door than may feel natural to get the even light you want on their face while still taking advantage of the color and texture from the door.

Best of Weddings_0197

2. Find Thin Clouds


The absolute best open shade is created by thin, wispy clouds that veil or blanket the sun and a large section of the sky. The clouds act like one large light diffuser (like trees) except there’s no spotty light. Smaller, individual clouds or even clumps of clouds will give you some shade for a period of time, but they and the sun are moving at the same time, so it won’t last long. A good trick for making sure the light from the open shade is even is to hold out your hand directly in front of you. Take a good look at the wrinkles. If you have good open shade, the light will fill the crevices of your wrinkles (to an extent) without creating any hot spots on your hand. In other words, the light on your hand will be even. Try that in a few directions. It should be consistent all the way around if it’s good open shade.

Best of Weddings_0003

3. Scope Out Tall Buildings


When you’re backlighting someone, the light on the ground will be spotty in certain places, or you’ll notice a clear division between shade and sunlight hitting the ground. With open shade, the light on the ground should be the same, a consistent color and temperature. If you see hot spots, it’s not open shade. If we’re shooting in urban areas, large buildings oftentimes provide great sources of open shade created by their shadows. Just be careful not to wander into a place that’s too dark. Different buildings (because of their height, color, and direction to the sun) will give off different light. And remember, the closer you are to a building, the darker the light will be, and the more the reflection on the color of the building will impact your shots. So, look for buildings that cast large nets of shade. Sometimes a collection of buildings (in a downtown area, for example) will work together to do this.

Ali and Joel_0002

4. See the Whole Picture


Once you’ve found your open shade and made sure that the light is even on your subject’s face and body, take a deep breath and take a good look into the distance behind them. One of the biggest mistakes we made early on was finding great open shade and exposing perfectly for our subject’s face, only to get home and realize that the entire background was either filled with hot spots or totally overexposed. When you’re looking in the viewfinder, make sure that the light in the entire background (or almost all of it) is the same as on your subject. This will keep you from blowing out backgrounds and creating super bright spots that distract from your subject. Remember: the subjects eyes should be the brightest part of the image to flatter their face and draw attention to them.

We hope that this helps, friends! We’ll continue our natural light series next week by talking about using natural reflectors to take your images to the next level. We hope that you’ll join us so that we can learn together and make each other better! We’d love to hear your questions comments down below!

Alisa

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  1. Jillian Ryan

    August 8th, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Wonderful blog post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂

  2. Jillian Ryan

    August 8th, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Wonderful blog post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂

  3. Amy & Jordan

    August 8th, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    You bet, Jillian! Thanks so much for your feedback! We’ll have one new post every week 🙂

  4. amyandjordan

    August 8th, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    You bet, Jillian! Thanks so much for your feedback! We’ll have one new post every week 🙂

  5. Gemma Price

    April 20th, 2016 at 6:36 am

    Thanks guys for explaining that so well, It’s been a big help
    Keep up the good work : )

  6. Nki

    September 4th, 2016 at 11:09 am

    This was really helpful! I do have some questions about the first tip though. When you say, “If you can see the sky and the shade, you’ve found it”, can you explain who’s where? The client is in shade but sky is in front of them? I’m just trying to understand positionally where the photographer is in relation to the client, the shade and the sky. Thanks!!

  7. NH

    September 4th, 2016 at 11:09 am

    This was really helpful! I do have some questions about the first tip though. When you say, “If you can see the sky and the shade, you’ve found it”, can you explain who’s where? The client is in shade but sky is in front of them? I’m just trying to understand positionally where the photographer is in relation to the client, the shade and the sky. Thanks!!

  8. Georgia Brooks

    March 21st, 2018 at 4:14 am

    Thanks so much for sharing such kind of useful post. I really appreciate your nice explanation. I will certainly dig it and personally suggest to my friends. I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

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