Hello! My name is Scott and this is the final blog of a three part series about my return to school to follow my passion for photography as a mature student.  If you haven’t read the previous blogs, “Photography Education – Upgrading during a Pandemic” or “Studio Photography – Lessons Learned” – I encourage you to read them first.

The Great Outdoors

As I alluded to in my previous article, with few exceptions, there is little you cannot achieve with natural light that you can with strobes in studio.  In fact, in many cases, many photographers would rather shoot with natural ambient light if the quality and direction of light is appropriate for the genre being shot.

The challenge with working with natural light is that it’s rarely constant.  With the relative movement of the sun, clouds and other factors – the direction and quality of light is constantly changing which means we must continuously adjust as well in order to achieve proper exposures.

Golden Hours

There’s a reason most people love to watch a good sunset, and that’s for the same reasons the diehards like to watch a good sunrise – the quality of light is beautiful, and for photographers this is the most forgiving and diffused form of natural sunlight that you will encounter throughout the day.  The hour immediately after sunrise and before sunset is known as “Golden Hour” or “Magic Hour”.  In contrast, the hours of 11 am to 1 pm are typically the harshest sunlight conditions due to the sun being directly overhead with little diffusion.  Photographers typically chase the golden hours in order to create those magical moments.

Now, obviously limiting ourselves to Golden Hour isn’t always possible nor convenient.  So, how do we tackle the challenge of midday sun?  Well, there are a few ways, however, in principle we are looking to soften or diffuse the midday sun in order to create a more pleasing light that is similar to what we encounter during Golden Hour.  

Shade is Golden

One way of achieving this is through the use of diffusion materials or scrims (like a big semi-transparent umbrella or canopy)  that we place above our subject to provide shade from the sun.  Another method that involves no additional equipment is to choose a location that provides what we call “open shade”.  This could be the shade of a tree, a building, an alleyway or a reflector panel – anything that allows your subject to be in the shade while still being able to face into the direction of sunlight. You, as the photographer, will have your back to main direction of light while photographing your subject.  As open shade is working with light that is primarily being diffused or reflected, this method provides for a very flattened and diffused quality of light that is very forgiving.  Richard Avedon used this method extensively while capturing images for his series, “In The American West”.

As a general rule, as photographers we have learned to avoid direct and harsh lighting conditions for most photography.  While I had shot street photography for many years, I never really consciously thought about open shade, however, shooting in the downtown core of Toronto, I realize that this is in fact what I was doing whenever I was shooting during the midday.  With this said, here are a couple lessons I learned.

Two Simple Lessons Learned

  1. While the concept of open shade seems simple enough, it’s still easy enough to get wrong.  One of the most common mistakes, and this goes for shooting during Golden Hour as well, is that you do not want your subject to be backlit (unless you are specifically looking for your subject to be rim lit). As open shade locations tend to be fairly open structures themselves (i.e. trees, alleyways or parkades), in order to maintain viewer focus upon your subject you must be careful to ensure that your background is not lighter than your subject that is standing in the shade. Reposition your subject as required, or see the next tip.

2. Related to tip #1, try as we might to avoid a bright background, it may be next to impossible to properly expose for your subject standing in the shade while trying not to overexpose the background which may be in full sun.  To address this issue, we must adjust our exposure to preserve the background while adding supplemental light to brighten our subject.  While the concept of supplemental light may sound complicated, it can be as simple as adding a reflector in order to “bounce” more light onto your shaded subject.  Another method would be to use a flash as a fill light. Again, not overly complicated, but we will discuss the mixing of  flash and ambient light in future blogs.

Let me know! Have you ever worked with open shade? Have you ever worked with both natural light and fill flash?  If so, do you have any tips?