Overpowering the Sun for Dramatic Portraits

Ndp 006 590 393


  • Flexflash 200W Strobe
  • Canon Speedlight 600EX-RT
  • Canon 5D MKIII camera
  • Canon 24-70 2.8L II lens

NOTE: The video below is available in Spanish here.

With wedding and portrait photography, there are many times when shooting conditions on-location are not ideal. The most common issues are bad weather and the challenge of shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is at it’s brightest. In this lesson we will cover how to compete with the sun to create a balanced exposure with perfect skin tones and a dramatic background effect.

Step 1: Natural Light Metering for the Model
The first step is to meter for the ambient light surrounding the model. This allows you to see how the value of natural light and have an idea of how many stops of difference are between the ambient light falling on the model’s face and the background. In this specific case our model is in open shade so there is a lot more light falling on the background.

I am choosing to shoot with ISO 100 (the lowest ISO possible) because it is a bright sunny day. I have the shutter speed set to 1/100. Why 1/100 if my camera sync up to 1/200? I select 1/100 to balance the light of the background with the flash. Then if I want to darken the background I just have to change the shutter speed to 1/200, very easy and simple. In the first test shot below the exposure for the model in open shade is f/5.6. This underexposes the background by about 3 stops.

Step 2: Natural Light Metering for the Background
The next step is to meter for the background. Because I already have the ISO and shutter speed set, I just need to adjust the aperture to find the perfect exposure for the background. To do this I just take a couple of test images, look at the histogram, look at the camera LCD, and then choose my favorite exposure. I am looking for deep blue colors in the sky and in this case the reading for the background/sky is f/16.

Step 3: Balance the Overall Exposure
Now it’s time to turn on the key light and fire with full power to take a preliminary light reading with your meter (if you don’t have a light meter, then do some test shots to find the correct exposure for your model). The light meter needs to read f/16 on your model in order to have the same exposure as the background. If your flash does not have enough power, move the flash closer to your subject and try again, or remove the modifier. Remember that when using a modifier like a softbox, you need a higher powered flash as each modifier you ise will soften the light output. Most commonly this technique is done with a bare reflector on the flash.

Step 4: Adding More Drama by Underexposing the Background
Now that the flash and background are balanced with the same exposure, (both at f/16) try changing the shutter speed to 1/200 to overpower the sun (ambient light) by one stop. Now the model will ‘pop’ more from the background, because the key light is coming from the flash, not the ambient light.

Step 5: Adding Fill Flash
Using just a key light causes one side of your model’s face to have a harsh shadow. I correct this by adding a fill flash on the other side, set at f11 (one stop less than the key light).

Step 6: Completing the Shot with an Accent Light
For me this step is the ‘icing on the cake’. An accent light gives just a ‘touch’ of light that makes your image more professional and also mimics sunlight spilling in from the behind your model.

Final Notes
I recommend that you have at least two assistants with you when you are working with off camera flash on-location. I mention this because accidents happen, especially when shooting on location. The wind is blowing, random people are walking around your equipment, etc.

The use of modifiers like umbrellas or softboxes affects the strength of the flash output, but helps to soften the edge between where your highlights and shadows transition. If you use a softbox under these circumstances, you will need a flash with enough power to compensate. You can also just move your flash closer to the subject.

When I am shooting a wedding, I like to do this style of lighting during my creative time with the bride and groom at the beach.This usually occur during cocktail hour. The bride and groom love to have a blue sky in their wedding destination photos as seen in many popular bridal magazines. I love natural lighting, but sometimes using a flash correctly allows you to have more creative freedom and provide to your client a different product from your competition.

Written and photographed by Noel Del Pilar.

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