Open Shade Lighting for Photography

There is a myth that you can only get great outdoor images either very early or very late in the day. The “sweet hour” is best just before the sun goes down or comes up. Those are spectacular times to photograph, but you can still get great images any time of the day. You just have to find that soft light. It’s easy to find, just look for open shade.

open shade portrait

photo captured by d_pham

Understanding Open Shade

Open shade is found anywhere a shadow is cast. It’s called open shade because of the low contrast and nearly no shadow in the shade. Open shade will have a bluish cast, so you will have to adjust your camera’s color setting. On the dial it’s usually beside the sun symbol and looks like the side of a building with clouds beside it. This setting will remove the colorcast.

Even at high noon, you can find this light. It could be a sliver of shade under a building’s eaves, the shadow of a car, or maybe a solid bank of trees. Just remember that with trees or other foliage you will need to watch out for speckling—this is where the harsh light sneaks through creating a hot spot. Don’t let any of that light fall on your subject. It will “burn” them out in your image.

There is deep shade up close to the source, and edge shade which is just before your subject would step into the harsh light. Always put your subject at the shade’s edge. The light is softest with some direction still. Also, by turning your subject different directions you will find the “sweet” part of the shade. You can spot this by the look of the eyes. You will catch lights–bright hot spots–in the eyes that give it shape.

portrait photography in shade

“30 days in the treehouse, day 20” captured by Stephanie Sicore

Controlling the Light

For added control of the lighting, you may want to try bouncing light onto your subject. If you have a reflector—which can be something as simple as a white sweater or sheet—try bouncing light onto your subject to brighten them up.

Here’s a trick for when you’re shooting in shade: open your exposure up. This means you slightly over-expose the image, or expose for the shadows. This will give your subject’s skin tones a wonderful glow. The image overall will be more delicate and pleasing. You might have to increase your camera’s ISO since open shade is a darker space to photograph in. With this trick you should be able to photograph anyone, at any time of day, and still get amazing images.

About the Author:
Mark Laurie is a master photographer, international speaker, author, and studio mentor. You can find information on his books, photography, and training at InnerSpiritPhoto. He is on Facebook at He teaches extensively in England and Canada. Mark has published seven books.

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