Flash + Direct Sun

With our IN-CAMERA tour quickly approaching, we thought we would post some serious lighting tips!!

When photographing any type of on-location portraits, whether for weddings, families, or even sometimes commercial work, we don’t always have the benefit of great natural lighting to help compliment our flash shots. Sometimes we are stuck shooting in direct sun, and that can be very problematic even when using flash. So, today we are going to break down a simple system that you can use to get great flash shots in direct sun!


There are two ways that we do direct sun flash shots and both are dependent on the time of day. If it’s NOT that time just before the sun is about to set (the golden hour) then we use this our sunny 16 approach, and if it IS that time just before the sun sets (but we still have direct sun on our client, just not as bright as mid-day) then we us our double metering technique.


Sunny 16 approach:

If your client has the sun blasting in their face and it is NOT that last hour before sunset or that first hour of sunrise, then use this process.

Step 1. Put your client and flash in desired position, power up your off-camera strobe to closer to full power.

Step 2. Set your meter to ISO 100, 1/100th of sec, and meter ONLY the flash until it meters f/16.

(note; if you meter the flash AND the direct sun together, it can throw the meter off and read incorrectly)

Step 3. Set your camera to ISO 100, 1/200th of second, f/16. Take and image, check your histogram for highlights and shadows to make sure everything is exposed correctly.

This will give you an image that is lit at a 3 to 1 lighting ratio, meaning that the ambient sunlight is one stop underexposed from the flash, giving you nice highlight and shadow detail.


The two images below were shot at one of our recent weddings in Kentucky. There was not a ton of outdoor places to shoot the groom that were not in direct sun since it was 1pm. I saw this cool door and even though it was being blasted by harsh light, we shot there anyway using the above method. Every day when the sun is direct and high in the sky, a correct exposure is ISO 100, 1/100th of a sec at f/16 (or the sunny 16 rule). So, if we simply power our flash up to that exposure, then speed up our shutter speed from 1/100th to 1/200th, we will underexposure the ambient by exactly one stop and correctly expose the flash giving us the look of the below image.


Direct sun (left image) —————————————————————Flash with ambient underexposed 1 stop (right image)
Method 2:
If we are not shooting in that high-noon situation and the sun has begun to set, then we need to adjust our approach since the sunny 16 rule no longer is effective. Since we don’t know exactly how bright the sun is as it begins to go down, we need to change up the system.
Step 1. Place your subject and the flash in the desired lighting and composition positions, then meter the ambient light that is hitting your clients face (be sure to keep your meter set to ISO 100, 1/100th of a second, then check the f stop reading for proper exposure).
Step 2. Now you must power up your flash so that it meters 1 stop brighter then whatever your ambient light reading was (or more than 1 stop for added contrast in your images). So, if the meter reading came back at f/4, then you would need to power up your strobe so that it reads at least f/5.6 (which is 1 stop brighter than f/4).
(Note; Be sure to block the ambient light from hitting your meter when you meter the flash, otherwise it can throw off your meter reading).
Step 3. Now simply put your final meter reading settings that you took of the flash into your camera, take an image, check your histogram to be sure the highlights and shadows are where you want them, then fire away!
Below are a number of different images that were all shot in direct sun with a few added tips to get the best shots!
Tip 1. Be aware that when shooting in direct sun, whatever the sun hits, it will cast a harsh, sharp shadow on. So in the collage above, the image to the left has my shadow, her shadow and the off-camera light and stand hitting the ground. So in the final composition, we eliminated those elements. This happened because it was very late in the day and the sun was very low, so it drug that shadow out across the ground very dramatically.
You may also notice that the fill, light from the sun is very colorful adding that orange tone. When the sun is low, it is going to warm up and add that tone. The more you overpower the sun with your flash, the less of that you will see. You can also gel your flash so that the colors match. I tend to like that warm fill light and the effect that it gives.
This image was closer to high noon, so you can see the shadow from the sun is right underneath her. We still have that warm tone from the sun, but not nearly as warm as the previous shot. You may notice the sharp shadow on her right cheek, and the is from the direction of the sun. So watch the ambient light and make sure that you either overpower it to reduce shadows you don’t like, or make sure she is facing the ambient light source in a way that does not cast an unpleasing shadow.
Here again, you can see the warm late day sun using method 2 and the harsh sun shadow put to good use at the right angle. Using direct sun can really make dramatic shots instead of just the super soft soft-box images shot in the shade where everything is subtle.
All these images have only one off-camera light!
In this last image, we used method 2, but then overpowered the sun by 2 stops instead of one to give it that dark, contrasty look. The ambient light in this image was f/8, then we overpowered that by 2 stops so our flash was at f/16. We then put on our 3 stop neutral density filter to reduce our f/stop to f/5.6, then we took our ISO down to 50, then opened our f/stop to f/4 to compensate. Final image specs were ISO 50, 1/200th of a second, f/4 with the Canon 85L lens.
We hope you enjoyed this weeks tips and tricks! Want to learn how to do this first hand? Sign up for our FINAL IN-CAMERA tour which starts NEXT WEEK!! Click HERE for more info!!