HIWS: Taming the Sun with Speedlights

Nikon D200, 60mm 2.8 AF Micro, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/250 sec.

Shooting in broad daylight can be really scary at first. Hundreds of beginner portrait photography tutorials will advise you to shoot only during golden hour, or to hope for a cloudy day with soft, diffused light. Others will tell you to look for open shade, or just stay inside and find a north or south facing window. These are all valid suggestions (and worth checking out) but I’ve learned that you don’t have to be afraid of the sun. Golden hour sun can be amazing and I love to use it, but you don’t always have that luxury.

The photo at the top of this post was actually taken during golden hour, but I wasn’t using the sun as my key light. I instead positioned my subjects with the sun coming in from their back right. That’s the rim light you see. For the key light, I set up a speedlight on a compact stand directly opposite the sun. This is called crosslighting, because the two light sources are across from one another. I love the definition that it can provide, and using the sun as a rim light avoids problems with your subjects having to squint.

Using a bare speedlight gives you plenty of power in most situations, even at a bit of a distance. It was about 10 to 15 feet away from these little guys, and I had it set to 1/4 power. The hard light from the speedlight is mitigated by a good amount of ambient fill, as well as the angle at which I positioned it. You’ll notice from the nose shadows, that it was just off-axis, camera right. Had I positioned it at a more dramatic angle, the hardness of the light would be more apparent. You can also get away with using hard light on subjects with great skin. Babies typically have flawless skin, so I was good to go!

The photo below was taken two days prior at around the same time of day, in the same location. I didn’t have a flash with me, so I just raised my exposure to get a decent exposure on their faces. Looking at the exif data, you’ll see that the ambient light in this photo is exposed about 1.3 stops higher than the first photo (the sun was about the same strength both days).

Nikon D200, 60mm 2.8 AF Micro, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200 sec.

I didn’t do any post-processing on the photo directly above, so I could have opened up the shadows and warmed up the white balance. Still, there are two problems: the rim light from the sun is severely blown out, and there is little definition on their faces. Using a flash to crosslight takes care of both issues, because you can underexpose the ambient to get rich highlights and you get definition in the faces.

On an unrelated note, check out the difference your camera level can make when photographing kids. I was laying on my stomach to shoot the photo at the top of this post, whereas I was probably crouching to get the second photo. It’s a subtle effect, but the first photo feels like you are right there with the kids; on the contrary, in the second photo you feel like you are looking down on the children.

Definition is one of the key aspects of using crosslighting. Consider the photo below. It’s a photo that I really like, but there is way less definition and shape to the light in the faces than in the crosslit photo at the top of this post. I was still using the sun as a rim light, but instead of a flash to open up the faces, I used a large white reflector. It bounces the sunlight back into my subjects and opens up a lot of the shadow detail. It’s not better or worse lighting than crosslighting—just different lighting.

Nikon D200, 50mm 1.8 AF, ISO 100, f/4, 1/250 sec.

Crosslighting isn’t always the solution with direct sunlight. The photo above works great with just a reflector filling in the faces. It creates a soft, gentle mood. Crosslighting is definitely edgier. Another great tactic to use when faced with direct sunlight is to diffuse it. You can place a shoot-through umbrella or a diffusion panel between the sun and your subject. That’ll allow you to harness the sun’s power, but modify it to your liking.

Nikon D200, 105mm 2.5 AI, ISO 100, f/4, 1/250 sec.

Another option is to block the sun outright. In the photo above, we were using the canopy of some trees to help us out a bit with the 10:30 am sunlight. Pretty harsh stuff usually! The trees helped block a lot of it but the sun was still peeking through and creating hotspots on my subject, so I used a reflector to block it.

Originally, I thought I’d use the black side of the reflector towards my subject, but then I thought that using the silver side could provide an interesting rim light. As you can see in the photo above, the effect is extremely subtle. It does just enough to provide a separation highlight along the camera right side of her upper arm. See the setup shot below:


In the final example, I tousle with full-on disgusting broad daylight. The tutorials tell you to stay away at all costs. But it can be tamed, and all I had was a bare speedlight.

Nikon D200, 18-70 AF-S DX @ 24mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/250 sec.

Okay, so my exif data tells me that this was shot at around 4 pm on June 21. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that’s the longest day of the year. Needless to say, 4 pm sun on the longest day of the year is not in a flattering position for photography.

You can’t really crosslight with this one because the sun is practically directly overhead. Instead, I chose a low shooting angle (as much to negate the sun’s influence as to create the epic baby pose) and key lit with a bare speedlight. Again, bare speedlights are pretty powerful, especially when used in close. Check out the exif data for the photo above: low ISO, max sync speed, and f/11. That pretty much knocks the sun down in addition to creating an extremely rich blue sky, plus a bare flash in close can easily hit f/11. I had my flash on a stick only a few feet away. I don’t remember exactly what power level I used, but it was probably somewhere around 1/8.

There are lots of other tricks you can use to get around the sun. Get out there and experiment. In the meantime, check out these nuts geniuses (seriously though, I really respect these guys!):

David Tejada with 4 speedlights

Joe McNally with 7 speedlights

Dave Black with even more speedlights



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