Natural light photographers often advocate placing your subject in open shade. When compared to the harsh shadows of midday sun, the benefit of open shade is that the shadows are very soft because the light comes at your subject from a wide range of angles across the dome of the sky. The downside to open shade is that the low contrast of the light (the difference between the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows) creates an image that lacks texture and depth. Fortunately, a single Speedlite can add a lot of magic to the shot.
Shadows reveal depth and texture. Compare the two shots above. Figure 1 was shot in the open shade on the north side of a cliff. Figure 2 is the same exposure with the addition of a Speedlite set very close to the rock wall and zoomed very tight. The pop of flash is the only difference between the two shots. Note how the shadows of the rock in Figure 2 allow you to see the texture of the surface. (See this article for more insight on using Zoom as a creative tool.)
Shadows also create a sense of time. Note also how the angles of the shadows in Figure 2 suggest that the sun is low in the sky. We know instinctively that long, raking shadows mean the sun is close to the horizon. Since there are no well-defined shadows in the Ambient-only shot, there is no sense of time.
Color also plays a key role in perceiving the time of day. When the sun is near the horizon, our atmosphere warms the light. In contrast, open shade is very cool (bluish) because the rays of sunlight literally bounce off the dome of the sky on their way to the subject. You can see the cool cast of open shade in Figs. 3 and 4, below. Both images were made with my camera’s white balance set to Daylight.
To mimic the effect of late afternoon sun, I shifted the Color Temperature slider (Fig. 5) in Lightroom from the camera’s white balance setting of 5200K to 9500K. Compare Figure 3 to Figure 2 and Figure 4 to Figure 1 to see the effect of this color shift.
Are you wondering why I did not use a CTO (amber-colored) gel on my Speedlite to shift the color of the flash? If I had, then there would be an unnatural difference between the cool ambient light and my flash. Without the CTO gel, I was able to lift the ambient and flash together with a simple move of the Color Temperature slider.
So, how big of a difference can one Speedlite make? Figure 6 below is my best effort in Lightroom at optimizing the Ambient-only shot to match the overall luminance of the Ambient+Flash shot. I’ve dropped Figure 2, the Ambient+Flash shot, back in below so that you can make a close comparison. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the differences as a comment.
These shots were made as part of a demo that I did recently at Peter Read Miller’s sports photography workshop in Denver. For more information on Peter’s workshops, click here.
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