controlling bright sunlight with direct off-camera flash
Working with Molly K as our model during an individual flash photography workshop in New York, we put in action the thought-process when using flash in very bright light. There’s a specific algorithm that gets us to optimal settings.
But, as usual, there’s more to a final image than just the numerical settings on the camera …
camera settings and decisions
When trying to over-power the sun with flash, the best algorithm is usually:
- maximum flash sync speed,
- lowest ISO,
- find the aperture for your brightest area that you want to expose correctly for,
at that specific shutter speed and ISO.
So that brings us to the central question … what should I be metering for?
Here is the test shot where I decided how I wanted to frame Molly K …
There are three broad areas here to consider in terms of the ambient exposure:
- the bright sky, (which is unevenly bright),
- the shadowed areas of the building on the left,
- the sunlit building on the right.
In this instance I wanted to frame her against the bright sky, and allow the exposure for the sun-lit building to fall where it may. That hot-spot where the sun reflected off a window, was a lucky accident in a few frames.
Metering for the sky, I got: 1/250 @ f8 @ 100 ISO
It made more sense though to get a bit more depth-of-field because of how I composed the shot.
So I settled on: 1/250 @ f11 @ 200 ISO
I wanted more depth of field because of my angle of view. I wanted that low view-point. So low that I couldn’t actually look through the camera’s viewfinder.
I pre-focused on Molly’s hands on her hips … and then held the camera to the ground.
I fired off several sequences of photos, changing the camera’s angle slightly with every shot … just to make sure that I do end up with a few good compositions. My success rate was surprisingly good because the wide-angle view was forgiving of slight framing errors. This is why the reflection of the sun in the windows was a lucky accident in a few frames. I couldn’t actually see it in my viewfinder at the time and make sure I got it every time.
For the off-camera flash portion of the workshop, we had been working with my regular Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Kit (24″x24″) (B&H). However, trying to match the bright sky with a speedlite, I knew that a softbox would just eat up too much of the light. Therefore I went with bare, un-diffused off-camera flash.
Bare flash is less forgiving of how you pose your subject and position your light. A softbox on the other hand, is quite forgiving in how you place the light.
The flip-side though, is that with bare flash, you can use simple methods of figuring out the flash exposure:
- you can use the guide number of your flash, or
- use the distance scale of your flash / speedlite / speedlight
The Nikon SB-900 / SB-910 has a distance scale on the flash. This allows you to balance that equation for correct manual flash exposure – aperture / ISO / distance / flash power.
Since the aperture and ISO is given for us … and we have our speedlight to manual output, then the distance scale will tell us approximately how far to hold the flash from your subject. Of course, a few test shots will allow you to finesse this for better exposure. I worked with the flash at full output.
And there you have it: f11 at 200 ISO … for the distance shown in this pull-back shot. The speedlight’s head was zoomed to 28mm, if I recall correctly.
The important step here though, was deciding on a specific background. That’s one of the key elements with effective on-location portraits - what is our background, and how do we want to use it?
equipment used during this photo session:
- Nikon D4 (B&H); Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G ED AF-S (B&H)
- Nikon SB-910 Speedlight (B&H); Nikon SD-9 battery pack (B&H)
- PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver (B&H)
- PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller (B&H)
- Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
Oh, the colorful blinged-out look of my lens is because of the lens-skins that I use on my two main lenses.
post-processing the image
Retouching the image at the top, I started with the Healing Tool in Photoshop for any skin blemishes and marks. Then, as part of my usual post-processing workflow, I used two essential Photoshop plug-ins – Shine-Off and Imagenomic Portraiture – as described in this article: Photoshop filters – retouching for portraits. That gives me a basic file that looks good and I can work on a little bit.
Similar to the vintage photo session Sarah R, I used a home-brew recipe in Radlab, to make the image pop with more contrast and saturation.
For the final image, I did use the Clone Tool and Healing Brush to remove some clutter in the background, such as one of the construction cranes.
And this is how one of my favorite recent images came together. Oh, the pool of light at Molly’s feet really are from the flash, and not from post-processing.
other articles featuring the model, Molly K
- maximum flash sync speed, and the Nikon SB-900 / SB-910 speedlight
- review: Canon ST-E3-RT Transmitter and Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite
- off-camera flash in low light – choosing your shutter speed
- what photo gear had a fundamental impact on your photography?
- review: Impact Quikbox Softbox (24″ x 24″)