adorable couple hugging while the golden hour sun shines behind them during their photography session

Portrait Photographer’s Lighting Guide: How to Use Shade

When people don’t understand light, they might think that going into a forest is a safe bet because it’s shady. And shade is great for photos, right? But I’m here to tell you something…

All shade is not created equal!

So let’s first get into what not to do when photographing subjects in the shade.

What NOT to do when photographing people in shade

Here is an old photo (above) that I took back when I first started. Why is it wrong? The background is brighter than the subjects and they are deep in the shadows so I had to bring up the exposure to compensate which is why the background is so overexposed. They are facing toward some big trees and more shade, instead of open sky. Their faces look washed out but if you look at their eyes, you’ll notice that they are dark and shaded. There are no catchlights in their eyes to bring them to life.

Above are a couple more photos from back in the day. I was in a forest and while it wasn’t super dense so the sun was beautifully shining through the trees, it was still very dark in there. Because my subjects were facing more trees, there wasn’t open sky to reflect back onto them, creating dark shadows on their faces and especially their eyes. They are nicely backlit but if their faces are still so full of shadows, it’s just not going to be good. You always want faces properly exposed, ESPECIALLY if they are looking at the camera like in the portrait on the right.

The image above is getting a little better, as you can tell that there was a more open area, but they were still surrounded by trees (although not as tall as the other photos). They have a nice rim of light behind them, but had they been in a spot where there was more open sky, their faces wouldn’t be so dark. And yes, you can fix these things a little while editing but it still won’t look as lovely as a properly exposed image will.

How to use shade for properly lit subjects

Always look for a location where the sun is behind your source of shade (for example, the sun is shining behind some trees). Put your subjects in front of your source of shade and make sure they are facing toward the open sky with the sun behind them, or behind but slightly out of frame. If they are facing toward more trees, or a building, or a mountain, they will have dark shadows. But if there is plenty of open sky, the light from the sky will reflect back onto your subjects and they will look amazing.

Don’t put them too deep in the shade, though! Walk them to the edge of the shade. If you photograph someone really far into the shade, they will still have those dark shadows, but if you take them to the edge a little before they are no longer in the shade, they will be beautifully lit.

Examples of how to light your photos using shade

how to use shade in photography - what is good lighting
mom holding baby in the shade durinf family photography session

In the three images above, my subjects are closer to the edge of the shade and the sun is reflecting off the long grass and flowers back onto them. There is a wide and open sky behind me that is also reflecting back onto them. The background is darker than my subjects so you can see a rim light around their hair. Their faces have good color, aren’t washed out, and are properly lit.

In the beach photo above, you can see that I placed them just at the edge of the shade. You’ll notice the right side of the photo is darker than the left because the sun was coming out from the mountain and creating that diagonal shadow. I love positioning myself where I can see the sun peek halfway out from behind something. It looks much better than if the sun is fully out in the sky.

Want to learn more about light when it comes to photography?

I’d love to teach you! I offer 1:1 Zoom Mentorships and I am working on a course all about sunset lighting and location. Get on my mailing list for a free golden hour lighting guide and to be informed when my course comes out!

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