Flash technique for sunny days

Last week I shot an engagement session that started earlier in the day than I prefer. Most photographers will try to shoot during the “golden hour” just before sunset because you generally get the best light then and maybe a great sunset to work with. For this session, we started about three hours before sunset with no clouds in sight. Fighting the sun can be a challenge sometimes but it also offers some great opportunities for unique shots.

I’m a wedding photographer in Tampa Bay, FL and these pictures were taken in Sawgrass Lake Park.

For this shot I used a 70-200mm zoom  and a Canon 580EX on  a tripod with a shoot-thru umbrella. The first thing I did was set up the camera for the husband in the back. Right away you have to figure that you’ll be shooting at the highest flash sync-speed possible all day, which for the Canon is 250/th of a sec. So, that’s my starting point. Then I bring the exposure up until I am getting a decent exposure of the husband (in this case, f4).

Now, he’s a little blown out, I know, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted the wife to be perfect and him to be a little sun-blasted. Once I had the exposure dialed in for the husband I set my flash power to match. On a bright day, the flash will be at full power most of the time. I fine tune the settings by moving the light closer or farther from the subject. Notice that both husband and bride are being lit from the same side? That’s the benefit of off-camera flash. It looks like they are both standing in the sun when in fact she is in shade and the flash is filling in for sunlight.

The thing to remember about bright days is that “the lighter the light, the darker the dark.” If you can find some shade it will open up dynamic possibilities because there will be such a huge contrast between the dark and light areas of the shot. Because the sky was so bright, I was able to set my camera to f6.3 and 250th of a sec and still have plenty of light in the sky. However, the shade got pitch black with those settings which allowed me to use a flash above the couple and create a cool “spotlight” effect. That’s not Photoshop, that’s the actual light halo from the umbrella.

We were walking towards a bridge for some close-ups when I noticed the setting sun coming through the bushes creating a nice pattern on the sidewalk. I quickly set my off-camera flash to camera-left so that it was on the same axis as the sun coming from behind my couple. Setting the flash directly opposite the sun in this way helps with the fall-off on the ground. The flash is going to cause some spill on the ground, but because it’s in line with the sun, it looks natural. If the flash were camera-right, the ground on the right would be lit. The sun is clearly shining from back-right to front-left. It’s like a big funnel of light coming out from the sun; placing your flash inside the funnel fools the eye into thinking the extra light on the ground is just more sun. Now, it only takes a minute of study to realize that the couple are obviously lit with some sort of light but that doesn’t mean it has to be completely obvious from the get-go.

Bright sun makes for great silhouettes.

The last thing I want to mention is that, although you are often trying to overpower the sun with your flash, it’s also nice to let the sun influence the shot. We moved around on the boardwalk about four times before I found the right spot. I wanted both the faces in shadow so that I could light them with the flash, but at the same time, I wanted the sun to be present in the shot so that it didn’t look too “studio.” Notice the sun on the legs of the couple? It creates some hot spots, sure, but that’s okay because that just furthers the “daylight” look of the shot. The tricky part was finding a spot where the trees blocked the sun from hitting the faces without casting the whole shot in shadow.

Don’t be afraid to shoot on a bright day with deep shadows. With a little thought you can create some great images!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks Booray. I’m just starting out in photography so it’s interesting to read the thought processes that go through a photographers mind. I just can’t imagine photogs think of all this stuff so fast! If I was in that situation, It would’ve been dark by the time I had everything thought out and set up!

  2. thanks for that… it would be good to get a tutorial for using a flash to simulate the sun on a dull day! (the other way around)… just what I have to do tomorrow for a client!

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