off-camera fill-flash in bright sunlight

shooting in bright sunlight with off-camera fill-flash

This adorable kid looked at the camera briefly because I was singing to him.  Kids are devious little creatures. They know when you’re calling them and will purposely ignore you.  So you have to be crafty too in getting their attention. Of course, you have to be ready for the moment … and shoot a lot. Sometimes that Decisive Moment is to be found in the edit.

The photo session was from 12 noon to 1pm. So the sun was high overhead. We’re often told that the sun directly overhead isn’t the best time to take photographs.  While this isn’t as ideal as the fabled ‘Golden Hour’ – that time just before dusk and just after dawn – there are ways of working with hard sunlight and still get great images …

The simplest way of dealing with hard sunlight – as described in this recent article on taking photographs in hard sunlight – is to have your subjects turn their back to the sun.  This way they are effectively in open shade, and the sunlight giving a rim lighting.  This does mean carefully positioning your subject in relation to the light, and yourself in relation to your subject, as well as the light, and the background!  It’s always more effective an image if you keep your background in mind.

I knew I wanted some out-of-focus color in the background, so I set my position so that I could use that red shrub and defocused high-lights.  I set up a softbox on a light-stand to my left.  Why my left?  Since I was using an on-camera speedlight as the Master flash, it was easier to hold my camera with the flash pointing to my left for vertical shots.  Then my left hand would support the lens, and my right hand held the grip … instead of the ‘hand under’ way of holding a camera, where your right hand is supporting everything and your right forefinger is tripping the shutter.  Shooting with your right hand under the camera just seems like an invitation for camera shake. Either way, it’s just comfortable for me to use the camera in a vertical position with the flash pointing to the left, whether I am holding the vertical grip or have my hand ‘over’ the camera.

I was shooting in TTL mode, since I knew I would have to rely on the TTL flash technology to take up some of the slack as this little guy and his sister moved around.

Normally when using flash as a mere touch of fill-flash with an on-camera speedlight, I would work with the flash set to around -3EV. This way the flash is less noticeable.  But since I was using a 24×24 softbox here, I knew my light would appear softer and still appealing, even if I used the FEC at a higher setting.

Camera settings: 1/250 @ f5.6 @ 200 ISO … TTL flash at -1 EV

The Slave flash was in a Lastolite Ezybox softbox (24×24) on a Manfrotto 1004BAC lightstand.

My exposure was set so that the light on him was nearly the correct exposure, with the TTL flash then taking up the slack and opening up his slightly shaded face.  Dead simple.

More articles on off-camera flash …

Equipment used during this photo session:
Nikon D3;  Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II (B&H);
Nikon SB-900 (B&H); Nikon SD-9 battery pack (B&H);
Lastolite EZYBOX 24×24 softbox (B&H);
Manfrotto 1004BAC light-stand;
umbrella clamp (B&H); brass stud (B&H)

29 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Dickie Gill says

    Another great shot Neil, I love the background, One question , the little guys hair seems to have a strange cast to it or is that just me ?

  2. 3Rishi S says

    Hey, am yet to find a blog that is as generous with info as yours. A lot of photographers put up posts that are endeavors in self-promotion masquerading as information. Yours has as very matter-of-fact and non-intimidating way of dispensing information. Thanks for it all!



  3. 4Joel says

    Hi Neil! Thank you for generously sharing your knowledge and talent with us. I have a question with regards to off camera fill flash(TTL) using a softbox. How does TTL work if the sensor on the flash is covered by the white diffuser in front of the softbox? or is it the sensor from master flash from the on-cam speedlight that analyzes the distance from the flash to the subject for TTL to work??? Thank you so much.

  4. 5emopunk says

    @Joel: by no means I wanna by-pass the Master (I think we all agree Neil is a real one, in the purest meaning of someone willing and being able to teach..), but I guess the calculations you are referring to, happen via the camera sensor. That’s why the flash mode is called TTL, Through The Lens. I hope to be right! :P

  5. 6 says

    Joel … the older type flashguns which were thyristor controlled (and the Nikon speedlights and latest Canon speedlights) have an Auto mode. With this mode, the flashgun uses the sensor in the front of the flash. If this is obscured then you can’t get proper automatic flash.

    However, TTL flash works ‘Through The Lens’ as emopunk noted.

    Have a look at this diagram:

    The flashgun emits a pre-flash (before the main flash exposure), and the camera uses that pre-flash to measure how much light is returned, and from that, calculates the final flash exposure. Since it measures the flash exposure through the lens, there is no external sensor on the flashgun that is used. So you can use a TTL-controlled speedlight mounted onto or inside a softbox.

    Neil vN

  6. 8Dragos says

    Neil, thanks again for your advices. But I really don’t understand how to avoid the “spots” on the children’s faces. I really don’t like when the skin has different tones of colors and white, even corrections can be more difficult. It seems it isn’t a problem for you, should I ignore this fact? Thank you.

  7. 12Daubs says

    First, GREAT site! I’ve used your recommendations for bouncing flash and fill flash outdoors many times over…and my clients love the look! Question about using flashgun as the “master.” I have Nikon SU-800 Speedlight Commander I use to control my SB-800’s off camera. What are advantages to using the flashgun (SB-800 or SB-900) as master vs. the SU-800? Thanks again, D.

  8. 13Scott says


    I have a question about the camera settings you used. You mentioned you were looking for some washed out color on the background: this would imply a wide shutter. Is there a reason you chose f5.6 with the 200 iso versus something like f4.0 and 100iso in the bright sunlight? Just curious. Thanks a lot.


  9. 14 says

    Daubs .. I have the SU-800 (and ST-E2) and like them, but I would still rather use a speedlight because I can rotate and move the flash head to point directly at the Slave flash. THis really helps if I am forward in my position compared to the Slave.

    Also, the amount you spend on the SU-800 might as well go towards another speedlight since a speedlight also works as … a speedlight. : )

    Neil vN

  10. 15forkboy1965 says


    It had been my understanding (and I have little of that so please keep that in mind) one used soft boxes fairly closely to the subject (the distance being no more than 2-3 times the width of the soft box). Do you find this to be true or is it really a case-by-case approach?

    Second, why a soft box instead of an umbrella?

    Thanks for any thoughts you may be willing to share.

    (getting into off-camera lighting)

  11. 18 says

    Great comment Neil turning the camera counter clock-wise.

    When shooting weddings under harsh sunlight, any recommendations on how to add fill light when people wear glasses / are sweating? The reflection is then quite an issue

  12. 20Nancy says


    Great photo and great advice. Shooting at f 5.6, did you do any post-production blurring of the background? I frequently shoot ice hockey, and yesterday I was photographing a player on the ice at with a 200mm lens, 1/500 sec @ 2.8 and the rink vending machines (10-15 ft behind) were still distinguishable in the background. What am I doing wrong?

  13. 21 says

    Nancy … the way the background blurs, also has to do with your distance to the subject, relative to the subject’s distance to the background.

    With this little boy, I was quite close to him. In comparison, the background was much further away … even though in reality the foliage was only about 25 feet or so, behind him.

    So I suspect that in your case, the players were close to the vending machine than you were close to them.

    Neil vN

  14. 22 says

    I’ve rarely gotten my Canon speedlights to work in the Master/Slave relationship, relying on Pocket Wizards instead. Are you saying the Master speedlight (on-camera) will have a better chance of triggering the Slave speedlight if the Master is pointed in the direction of the slave? In other words, if the Master isn’t being used to light the subject at all? If this is the case, why not just put a PW, or similar transmitter, onto the camera’s hotshoe and use it to trigger the OCF?

  15. 23 says

    When using Canon’s E-TTL, the master speedlight fires a pre-flash signal light that has coded TTL information for the remote speedlights. If the master’s flash output is set to — (nothing), then only the pre-flash signal light is generated. This doesn’t contribute to the final image except when very close to the subject. The remote speedlight detects this pre-flash signal light via an optical sensor somewhere on itself. Because the signal light is visible light, the remote speedlights have to be able to “see” the master speedlight. That is why people call this “line-of-sight.”

    You can use PocketWizard units to trigger the off-camera flash, but the the camera and the remote speedlights each need a transmitter.

  16. 24 says

    PhotoMatte …

    Are you saying the Master speedlight (on-camera) will have a better chance of triggering the Slave speedlight if the Master is pointed in the direction of the slave?

    Yes. And I can do this because the Master doesn’t contribute light to the subject. It’s just there to control the Slave.

    If this is the case, why not just put a PW, or similar transmitter, onto the camera’s hotshoe and use it to trigger the OCF?

    With the old-school PocketWizard Plus II units, I would lose TTL control. And here I wanted to work with TTL flash.

    Neil vN

  17. 25Eddie says

    Hi Neil, Great Photo.

    I wondered how you considered the highlights on the boy’s cap and left ear when making the ambient light exposure, how did you know that the highlights would not bleach out, and if they did would you accept that they were of little importance compared to the overall exposure.

    Many thanks for the great resource you provide.

  18. 26Stephen S says

    If I use the popup flash on my Canon 60D as the master to remote trigger my off camera 430ex ii speedlite, will I be able to use my Sekonic L358 light meter to check the exposure or will the pre-flash light of the pop up flashmess up the light meter readings? If its outdoor in sun will it have less of a contribution? Is there a trick to be able to correctly use the light meter in this remote trigger mode if not using a Pocket Wizard system. The reason I upgraded to the 60D was because it had the remote flash triggering capabilities so I could save some money now and not have to buy expensive radio triggers. Thanks for all the great articles you provide us on a regular basis.

  19. 27 says

    The pre-flash from the TTL flash will mess up the meter reading of your Sekonic.

    There’s no easy way around it when using TTL flash like this, and I wouldn’t bother metering for the TTL flash since it is an automatic mode. If you want control, go to manual flash.

    Neil vN

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