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.

Fig. 1 -- Ambient light only.

Fig. 1 — Ambient light only (open shade on the north side of a cliff).


Fig. 2–Ambient + Flash, the same exact exposure with the addition of a Speedlite at camera right.

 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.


Fig. 3–The original Flash+Ambient capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

Fig. x

Fig. 4 — The original Ambient-only capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

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.

Flat Light Ambient Capture

Fig. 5 — The Basic settings panel in Ligthroom’s Develop module.

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.

Fig. 5 -- Ambient light corrected to maximize luminance.

Fig. 6 — Ambient-only (Fig. 1) optimized in Lightroom so that luminance is similar to Ambient+Flash shot.


Fig. 2 (again) — Ambient + Flash, with white balance shifted in Lightroom.

 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.


7 Responses to Adding Magic To Flat Light

  1. Doug Hall says:

    I just want to thank you again for the excellent instruction that you provide the photography community. You continue to be an invaluable resource for all of us. I especially appreciate the detailed and clear manner in which you are capable of explaining complex ideas. You’re a treasure.

  2. Marc Baillargeon says:

    Great article! Thanks!!

  3. Kevin says:

    ? On flash sync I have a d5200 w/ SB700 flash. My camera is not able to go past 1/200sec. With the flash on.
    What other technique could I use to light my subject with a speed lite on a sunny day and still keep a large app to blur my background and not blow my subject because I need a faster shutter speed?

    • Syl Arena says:

      @Kevin – I had to do a bit of research on this one. Apparently the D5200 does not have the capability to do Auto-FP Sync (which Canonistas call “High Speed Sync). This is a limitation of the camera and not your SB700 Speedlight. You could use a polarizer, or better yet, a Neutral Density filter over your lens to block the ambient light. The challenge with this technique is that you may have trouble focusing or following action if the filter is really dark.

  4. Laura R. says:

    Thank you not only for this great fill flash tutorial, but for sharing your post-processing warm-up tip as well. Both are informative and very much appreciated!!

  5. Isabelle says:

    Thank you for your tutorial, but I still struggle with my camera settings…. If understood
    1. You read ambient light with aparture priority or manual mode (outdoor depending on weather or where you put focus point of the camera on the subject, my reading keeps changing so how do i decide on which settings to go for before switching on the flash?)
    2. I put the Flash on and its power is controlled by the aperture and the ambient light is controlled by shutter speed.
    I am ok with all this but cannot decide and I am struggling with starting using flash because of my camera reading meter…I then end up moving all the switch and literary feel like I am working “in the dark”, forgetting my settings and starting playing a guessing game upon on what I see on my camera screen…(and I cannot do this in front of a client of course…) Any advises would be very welcome as I would like to work and be able to control the shadows.
    Many thanks
    Many thanks

  6. Joyce says:

    Great information! I’ve been troubled by the lack of shadows in my open shade photos-they’ve been so flat. Nothing I could do in post-production helped and I now I get it. I’m going to work with this technique. Thanks so much!!

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