The Quality of Light Produced by Open Shade

The sky is a much larger light source than the sun; therefore, the light produced by open shade is much softer. It is multidirectional and produces shadows with gradual edges rather than those with hard edges produced by direct sun.

Because open shade produces softer light, its direction is less obvious in photographs and contrast is minimized. The light spreads over a scene, creating a somewhat evenly lit environment.

Direct sunlight isn’t ideal for all subjects; it can sometimes be too harsh, or overpowering. Certain subjects that require a softer mood lighting or a more even type of light photograph better in open shade. Some examples of these subjects include the following:

  • Flowers with soft, silky petals, or any sensitive, milky, or supple subjects. Softer light helps to reduce contrast and provides a more even lighting that works better to represent fragile shapes, forms, and textures.

  • Complex subjects that have many shadowy areas, such as a patch of many blades of grass or any subject with deep cavities. Hard light produces well-defined shadows, which can cause complex scenes to appear chaotic or confusing. A softer light helps to show objects with less shadow definition, making it easier to read the image.

    This photograph provides an example. The image on top was photographed under direct sun and the image on the bottom in open shade conditions.

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  • Subjects with broad reflective surfaces. A larger light source provides a larger highlight than a smaller light source does. This can be ideal for revealing the shape of reflective subjects, such as a ripple in the water, a waxy berry, or a silver spoon.

Any time you determine that direct sun is an unsatisfactory light source for a subject, simply take out a piece of foam core or cardboard that’s large enough to shade your entire scene, or at least your subject itself, and try photographing under open shade conditions.

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