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Interested in my entire blog series about light? Find all the posts here.
When I first started shooting, one of the most overwhelming aspects was choosing where to have my subject stand. I chose based on the background and a faulty idea of what light might look good. Learning quickly spot the good light mitigate my choice paralysis because it instantly ruled out some options due to poor lighting. Learning open shade photography revolutionized my photos because suddenly they were consistent and professional before I even started editing them.
Open shade sounds complicated, but it only has two simple components. 1) It is a shadow and 2) your subject can look up and see the sky. That’s it. Lucky for us photographers, lots of things create open shade. Trees. Buildings. Low walls. Plenty of other things. Where you might run into problems shooting in open shade is in a field or other more barren landscape. That doesn’t mean it is impossible (or that you can’t shoot there), but it is something to consider. Especially starting out.
Should just the subject be in open shade or should the entire photo be in open shade? The absolute optimum situation is to have your subject AND your background in the same light. It will help create a more cohesive and consistent looking image. Hot spots (aka bright, harsh light) can draw your eye and sometimes make the photo feel less polished. That doesn’t mean that you won’t decide that a location is worth the bright spots in the background. Sometimes you just don’t have any other options.
The photos of Rachel below were shot in the same area and within minutes of each other. Both have a little bit of harsh light in the background, but the one on the right is far more obvious than the one on the left. Does that mean the photo on the right is bad? No. It may mean a little more work during post processing to try to bring down the harsh light, but the goal shouldn’t be that you never break the rule of open shade. It should be that you purposefully and intentionally make that decision.
Sometimes you’ll get really lucky with a shoot and the clouds will create natural open shade for you. If there’s a thin cloud cover across the sky and there isn’t too much difference between sun and shaded areas, then you’re getting natural open shade. Sometimes the cloud get heavier and go from open shade to actual cloud coverage. Full on cloud coverage isn’t a reason to totally panic, but it does mean you’ll have to shoot a bit differently.
With both thin and thicker cloud coverage, you should have far more freedom in where you position your subject. Because cloud coverage can sometimes change as the shoot goes on, don’t totally ignore your attention to open shade and hot spots. But, if everything is in the same light, then enjoy your freedom in terms of where to position your subject!
Keep in mind that, the thicker the clouds, the more you might need to increase your exposure. This is advice for both your camera/phone settings and in post processing. It is so much easier to brighten up a photo than it is to darken one with hot spots. Check out Renee’s session for an example of photos shot on a cloudy day but brightened up in post.
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..