The Natural Beauty Of Open Shade

I did environmental portraits and reportage shots using open shade for part of my photo essay on the tequila-making process at the Hacienda del Patrón in the Jalisco highlands of Mexico.

Noël Coward’s lyrics, only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” can be expanded to include photographers on location who want to increase their working time beyond the classic early-morning and late-afternoon hours without having to resort to artificial lights.
The golden hours, just after sunrise and before sunset, typically have been the postcard times of the day for photography, and for good reason. The soft light and warm colors and the way shadows fall are particularly pleasing to the human eye. But that doesn’t mean the camera has to be put away for the intervening hours. Shooting in open shade, especially for environmental and eyes are the window to the soul-type portraits, is an effective technique than can be utilized just out of reach of the glaring middle of the day sun.

Before we go further, it’s important to understand the distinction between open shade and ambient light. Ambient light is the existing light at a location. It could be from the sun, a light bulb or a myriad of other types of light. The only light source for open shade is the sun.

In an interview with Marc Riboud, he told me how he took advantage of overcast days when the sky became a huge softbox, allowing him to stroll the streets and shoot in any direction at any time of day. The successful results of his solo camera in hand excursions in Paris and around the globe in book form fill a small library. On commercial productions, open shade can be created with large silks that come in sizes including 12×12 and 20×20 feet, and tied into frames to soften a hard overhead light to eliminate or at least soften unattractive harsh shadows on subjects. “Shiny boards” are often added to the set to kick in some fill or directional light. For smaller shoots, for example, an actor’s headshot, a handheld silk disc can be used to create open shade in an area exposed to direct sunlight.

An open shade portrait in a doorway in the Croatian town of Osijek shot with a Nikon D810 with a 70-200mm F/2.8 lens at 1/200th of a second, f/4, ISO 100.
The proprietor of Asaba, a classic ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Shuzenji, photographed in open shade for Forbes Life magazine during the middle hours of the day. My Nikon D3 with a 24-70mm lens was set to 1/125th of a second shutter speed, f/4.5, ISO 320.

Travel photographers, especially, don’t always have the luxury of being at a particular location at the ideal time of day in terms of light nor do they have the assistants to put up silks or hold reflectors. That’s where knowing how to find and work in existing open shade areas is especially useful. For example, to do a portrait of a Namibian teenager, I asked the young woman to sit inside the entrance to her family’s hut just out of the harsh shadow-inducing noonday sun. If she had moved deeper into the hut, the objects inside would have become visible, but having her just out of reach of the direct sun gave me a ratio that dropped the distracting elements in the background into the dark. The result was an eyes-are-the-window-to-the-soul-type portrait. Shooting with a shallow depth of field intensified the focus on her gaze.

An Inuit woman on Devon Island in the Canadian high Arctic photographed under overcast skies with a strobe fill light.
A Himba teenager photographed just inside the opening to her family’s hut. I used my Nikon D800E with a 105mm f/2.8 macro set at 1/200th of a second, f/4.5, 200 ISO.

In Croatia, I gave a demonstration of how to do a middle of the day portrait using a doorway for open shade during my Uniworld Floating Photography Workshop along the Danube. My students and I can be seen in my subject’s sunglasses as we stand in direct sunlight while she’s bathed in beautiful even light. I used similar techniques on a wide range of projects from portraits of refugees in a camp for displaced persons in Dohuk, Iraq, to a photo essay on the workers at the Hacienda del Patrón in the Jalisco highlands of Mexico.

In and around Utah’s Zion National Park are a number of incredible canyoneering opportunities that can be documented in open shade. The Narrows, a gorge with thousand-foot walls flanking the Virgin River, sometimes as thin as 20 feet wide running through it, is a popular hike. A second canyoneering experience that included rappelling and squeezing through slot canyons was suggested by the team at the Marriott Springdale Zion National Park. SAW Zion supplied all the gear and expertise so I could focus on creating a photo essay. Knowing I would need both hands to make my way through the natural course as well as squeezing through tight spaces, I left most of my equipment back at the hotel, opting for my Nikon 810 with a 24-70mm lens to cover the adventure. While there was barely a cloud in the sky, the sunlight that illuminated our circuitous route was indirect, bouncing back and forth off the canyon walls making it an ideal natural studio.

On a SAW Zion excursion organized by the Marriott Springdale Zion National Park, I weaved my way through a slot canyon with my Nikon 810 and 24-70mm lens set to ISO 400, making sure not to let my shutter speed drop below 1/60th of a second.

Having people stand on the north side of a structure, either natural or manmade, is another way to work in open shade. The sun’s path will have it only impinge on this side during the summer in the early morning or late in the afternoon. An example of a midday environmental portrait taking advantage of this astronomical fact is of the proprietor of Asaba, a classic Japanese-style inn, for a Forbes Life magazine travel feature.

On occasion, I’ll use a strobe to help highlight a subject in a natural softbox. For example, I photographed a young Inuit woman on Devon Island in the Canadian high Arctic under overcast skies with a Profoto B1 with a collapsible beauty dish attached. I often use a Gary Fong Lightsphere Diffusion Dome over a handheld Nikon Speedlight for the same purpose.

Humans, of course, are not the only creatures that can be photographed taking advantage of open shade. While the title of Dian Fossey’s book “Gorillas in the Mist” conjures up visions of a surreal landscape with these noble creatures making their way up and down mountainsides enveloped in fog, my day spent trekking on the slopes of Rwanda’s Mount Visoke was sunny with barely a could in the sky. Yet, the dense jungle canopy created a softbox above many areas where we encountered gorillas.

On a mountain gorilla trek in Rwanda organized by Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge, the jungle canopy created a large natural softbox. I used a Nikon D810 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250th of a second shutter speed at f/4, with an ISO 200.

When working with open shade, it’s important to be aware of any parts of the frame that are exposed to direct sunlight. Your eye might correct for a hand or foot that is venturing out into the sun but the ratio between shade and the direct light source will be very difficult to correct in postproduction. Also, since open shade means taking advantage of light that is indirect, be aware of the color of objects bouncing the sun’s rays onto your subject. A nearby red or green wall might result in the side of a person’s face being painted with an unflattering hue.

Keep in mind that a world of omnipresent flat light would be a dull place photographically speaking. Working with shadows and in high contrast situations are often great tools to utilize in creating a sense of drama. But there are times when less contrast is more appropriate and camera sensors are giving us higher and higher ISOs to work with without excessive digital noise, opening up more and more opportunities to take advantage of this softer, lower light conditions. It’s hard to beat the beauty of a natural softbox.


Mark Edward Harris’ latest book is “The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images (Focal Press). 

Website: www.MarkEdwardHarris.com
Instagram: @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto

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