How to Use Open Shade to Make the Most of Natural Lighting

Taking pictures in natural light can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re taking portraits. Too much strong light can cast harsh shadows and lead to areas of overexposure where the sun is shining directly. To avoid these issues, making use of open shade is the best option when taking portraits outdoors. Mark Wallace shares why open shade is his favorite kind of natural light for shooting portraits and gives tips on how to maximize shots in an open shade area:

For this demonstration Wallace is using a Leica M-P Digital Rangefinder with a Leica 50mm lens. According to Wallace, open shade is created when you have a shaded area that is right next to a bright environment with hard light. You can find open shade in areas where a building or other structure is casting a shadow that’s next to bright light. In other words you’re looking for shade that’s right up against an area with no shade. This results in soft, directional light that’s ideal for portraiture since it essentially acts as a giant soft box.

You can use open shade in one of two ways: have your subject stand in the shade facing the light, creating soft, even lighting, or have them stand with their back to the light, using the strong directional light as a backlight.

You may prefer the second method if the background that’s created when your subject faces the light is unacceptable, or if you’d like to create natural highlights from the backlighting effect. If the structure that’s casting the shadow is a light color, the directional light from the brightly lit area will bounce off it and back onto your subject, creating specular highlights.

Wallace warns that if you choose to use the direct light as a backlight, you’ll need to meter the shot yourself rather than letting your camera do it. The camera’s automatic settings will produce a photo where the background is in perfect exposure, but the subject is too dark.

open shade photography portraits

Instead, you’ll want to purposefully overexpose the background. In this case Wallace shoots at a thousandth of a second with wide open aperture at f/1.4 so the background will fall out of focus.

open shade photography portraits

With these tips, you can utilize areas of open shade and produce amazing, softly lit portraits.

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