July 14, 2010

overpowering hard sunlight with flash

With this part of a photo session with Johannie, we worked in an alley. The light was very uneven, with some swathes of sunlight falling directly on her.  (See the image below for the photo without flash.)  To get rid of this uneven sunlight falling on her, we have to add at least as much light on her as the brightest areas lit by sunlight. In the example above, our exposure is set to 1/250 @ f13 @ 200 ISO and we can see from the bright patch of light on her shoulder, that we’re at the edge of acceptable exposure. Any wider on our aperture, or higher on our ISO or slower on our shutter speed, and we’ll start to lose detail in the sunlit areas.

In the example above, our model’s pose helped hide the uneven light due to her face being in shadow and her shoulder being in sunlight.

Here is the same image, without flash.  This will give you a better idea of how much flash was added, and how uneven the available light / sunlight was.

In this following image, we can see the uneven light below her chin, casting strange shadows. Even though I had pulled out one of the two baffles inside the softbox, we still couldn’t deliver enough light from the softbox to completely over-ride the daylight. In other words, I had to set an aperture / ISO combination where the daylight still registers to a large extent.

Ideally, to lose the dappled or uneven or harsh available light, we need to under-expose it by around 3 stops. Then the flash exposure will completely dominate.

For our lighting here I used a softbox on a monopod, with a slaved speedlight attached. The Slave flash was triggered by an on-camera flash set to Master. I disabled the output from the Master slave so it didn’t add anything to the final exposure. It was there just to communicate the camera’s instructions to the Slave flash.

The key in overpowering hard sunlight, is to under-expose our available light to some extent, and then use flash to make up for the slack. In this case we could get away with a softbox held closely to our model, but with these other shoots, I used different lighting setups:


equipment used during this photo session

Nikon D3;  Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 AF-S (B&H);  Nikon SB-900 (B&H)
Lastolite EZYBOX 24×24 softbox (B&H); Quantum SC battery pack (B&H)
Manfrotto 680B monopod (B&H);
brass stud to attach softbox to monopod (B&H)


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{ 35 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Matt Adams July 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm


Great information, as always. Your blog always pushes past the boundaries that I have placed on my own photography, opening new lighting scenarios that I would have traditionally walked away from. Quite honestly, if I saw this uneven lighting, I would have found another location that wasn’t so challenging. This example prompts me to try flash first and then relocate if I could not make it work.




2 Michael Sharman July 14, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Great stuff as always Neil. Quick question on triggering the flash, you’re using the flash in the softbox as a slave triggered by a master flash on the camera. Why not use pocket wizards for this and save having to hold the (heavier) camera with a flash attached?

Is it so you can use the on camera flash as fill if/when you need it, so it’s convenient to fire in this configuration? Or are you using TTL so PW’s aren’t going to help here?


3 Neil vN July 14, 2010 at 6:22 pm

In this case I did use TTL flash, and couldn’t use the old school Pocket Wizards (the Plus II units).

I did bring PWs with me, but decided to use TTL, rather than manual flash. Mostly just because I felt like doing so. But a part of the reason was that during this photo session, we were moving around looking for different locations to photograph the model. Then I find TTL easier to work with, since the technology gets me halfway there already.

I find TTL flash faster to work with than manual flash, and sometimes it is more convenient to forgo the consistency of manual flash. With TTL flash I can change my Aperture and ISO settings without having to re-adjust the 4-way manual flash equation of aperture / ISO / distance / power.

Ultimately though, both ways – TTL / manual flash – can work. And I think we can actually be stronger photographers if we can easily flip between using either of those.


4 Neil vN July 14, 2010 at 11:51 pm

To mount the softbox to the monopod. Check comment #26 and #27 on the review page of the Lastolite EZYBOX softbox.

Neil vN


5 Marius T July 15, 2010 at 4:21 am

Hello Neil,

once again congrats for your photos. In a previous post i wrote that i never try to duplicate yor camera/flash settings because everything is different for each person/situation/location etc. Now i had a look and see that was 1/250, f13, iso200. I believe that the flash was 1/1 power. OK, my question is what time was during the shot? I asq this beacause with an SB-28 (full power bare bulb) i can reach f13 but mounted into Photoflex X-Small i cannot reach f13, only f9 (all iso100). OK, if you rise the iso from 100 to 200 the flash can do it, but in a sunny day, it is difficult (maybe impossible) to underexpose de ambient with 3 stops with your settings at 2-3-4PM. Last Saturday for example to underexpose the ambient (creating dramatic sky with the sun directly in the frame) i needed 1/250, iso100, f18 and 3 SB-28 zoomed at 50mm full power (without softbox or shoot trough) to expose the model. I believe you time was 6-7PM? Thanks, Marius


6 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 4:33 am

Hi there Marius.

The EXIF data says the images were taken around 2:20pm. The flash was in TTL mode, but I do agree it was dumping full power to get that exposure.

As to whether I could get f13 with the softbox … there is the pull-back photo as I took the photo that appears at the top. That’s how we did it.

For brighter light, I would have to shoot with bare flash.

Neil vN


7 martian July 15, 2010 at 5:04 am

Thanks Neil

What monopod do you use to hold the softbox and flash



8 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 5:22 am

>I use the Manfrotto 680B monopod (B&H),
but there are other monopods which might be slightly lighter.

You have to use some kind of stud to attach the softbox to the monopod (B&H).


9 Mark July 15, 2010 at 6:33 am

How did you get such soft shadows, was it because of the size and distance of the softbox?


10 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 7:20 am

Yup, the larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the light. This also generally means that the closer you hold the soft box (or light modifier) to your subject, the softer the light.

Neil vN


11 Robb Mac July 15, 2010 at 8:55 am

great post. I ran into this problem last week (and gave up). I ended up using two people… one with a diffuser and the other with a reflector to bounce back into the subjects face. I would have never imagined underexposing and replacing with flash. Thanks Neil!


12 Ned July 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

Hi Niel, thanks for the blog, it’s one of my required reading sites for the day :-) Have one equipment question for you, what kind of “belt” or device are your assistants using to hold the monopod? Looks like they tuck it into a flag pole carrier or something. Thanks


13 RG July 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm

@Ned – Correct me if i’m wrong here Neil but I believe the assistant isn’t using any sort of ‘pole carrier’, it may just be the angle of the photo and or something else dangling.


14 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Ned, the monopod is just held in place by positioning it against your hip. No belt or such. What you see there is the small Quantum SC battery pack.

Neil vN


15 Sam Obeid July 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Great article Neil! Harsh sunlight has always been a thorn in my side.


16 Stephen July 15, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Hi Neil,
Ok, so the plate and the stud are for mounting the softbox to the monopod. I won’t need them if the softbox is going on the Manfrotto 1004BAC lighstand, correct? (the lightstand already has a stud at the end)



17 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 3:56 pm

That’s correct. If you have a light-stand, then the soft box just pops onto it.

Neil vN


18 Linda July 15, 2010 at 6:32 pm

You mention in one of the above comments that the assistant has an SC Turbo battery pack on her belt. Is that the battery that you generally use to power your speedlights? Do you feel like it significantly improves your recycle time say over a CP-E4? Thanks!!


19 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Linda, I wouldn’t say the Quantum SC is significantly more powerful than the Canon CP-E4 or the Nikon SD-9, or recycles really noticeably faster.

So if you don’t have a battery pack, I would heartily recommend the Canon CP-E4 (B&H), or the Nikon SD-9 (B&H) first, over a Quantum battery pack.

Neil vN


20 Adam Baruh July 15, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Hey Neil,

You mentioned you removed both baffles and shot bare-bulb. Does the softbox still do anything because some of the light from the bare flash is reflecting off the inside walls of the softbox, still making it a larger light source that without any softbox at all?

Contrast, sharpness, and color of this pic is awesome! Would you mind sharing some of your post-processing technique as it relates to this picture?

Thanks, Adam


21 Neil vN July 15, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Adam … the softbox might still be scattering a bit of the peripheral light, but I don’t think it has a substantial effect then.

I’ve posted a few article on making images pop.
Here are the first two – Photoshop techniques to make images pop / using Topaz Adjust to enhance photos.

I’ll tag future articles under the Photoshop techniques category, so check back in over time.

Neil vN


22 Mickey Howell July 16, 2010 at 11:41 am

Wouln’t adding flash blow out the areas that are already bright from the sun. I mean sunlight plus flash would make the hot spots even hotter… right?


23 Neil vN July 16, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Mickey, it would. In this example her shoulder is turned away from the light, so the effect of the flash is less than you might expect. Also, I did pull down the exposure slightly by 0.15 EV in post-processing of that RAW file.

Neil vN


24 Carol July 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm


As per Marks comment above regarding the softer shadows… I noticed there is basically no light spill on the brick wall. Is this because of the softbox being so close or is this something cleaned up in PP? I have tried a similar technique in the past and the softbox lit up the whole wall around the model. A fellow photographer told me to move the model away from the wall a bit but I see you managed just fine here in your examples.


25 Neil vN July 18, 2010 at 4:01 am

Carol, aside from skin retouching, there was no ‘cleaning up’ in post. No dodging and burning of the brick wall or model.

What happened here is that the brick wall is mostly in shade, if you look at the image without flash. So the light from the flash just appears more natural, and less like light from flash. I think the texture in the wall also helped, in that there are no tell-tall hot spots on the background.

Neil vN


26 Alfredo Medina July 18, 2010 at 6:17 am

Hi Neil.

Can you explain how you have retouching the skin of the model?

Best regards,



27 Neil vN July 18, 2010 at 8:27 am

Alfredo .. the skin retouching is just simple use of the healing brush and clone tool in Photoshop.

To make the image pop a bit, I used a technique similar as described here, but with the effect reduced in opacity.

Neil vN


28 Joe July 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Hi Neil,

Thanks for all you do!!! Two quick questions:

1. You say you removed the internal baffle, but did you remove the outer one as well shooting direct flash? I know another poster said you did but I can’t see that in your explaination.

2. Do you use any gels over your flash when shooting outdoors like this?


29 Neil vN July 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Joe … my phrasing there might be a touch misleading. There are two baffles. The one inside, and the outer one. I had pulled the outer one aside. So only the thin inner baffle remained.

I don’t use a gel here, but I do use gels at times when I am working in an environment with incandescent light.

Neil vN


30 Kris July 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Neil, the 3rd article I read and again, very interesting info!
If I compare the first one (with flash) to the second one (only natural light), I can see that her left shoulder remains the same. One would think that the added flash light would over-expose her left shoulder (sun+flash combined), but it doesn’t: the light on her two shoulders is nice and equal. How can this be?

Under the 3rd photo (or the second with flash), I read: …”to lose the dappled or uneven or harsh available light, we need to under-expose it by around 3 stops”…
-> do you mean by making the aperture smaller?



31 Neil vN July 22, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Kris, for the answer to your first question, check my reply in comment # 24.

Re your question about under-exposure. It will inevitably have to be our aperture that we control. Since we’re in bright sunlight, we’re already at our lowest ISO. Unless we are using multiple speedlights with a diffuser / softbox / umbrella; or else just using one speedlight directly (off camera), we can’t go over maximum flash sync speed, for we lose too much juice. Which means we will have to adjust our apertures.

Neil vN


32 Mentor Mike December 25, 2010 at 10:13 am

My question is what did you use as a white balance when you shoot these typevof shoots out site.
I’m using a Nikon D90… and I would want you to help me on choosing the best WB when shooting outside…thank you!!!!!


33 Neil vN December 25, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Mike, here are two articles on choosing white balance settings … but before we get there, I have to reinforce the importance of shooting in RAW. Concerns about specific WB settings dissipate when you shoot in RAW, as opposed to being confined by your JPG choices.

which white balance should I use?
white balance settings – my approach

Neil vN


34 Mike Zubrinic November 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Hi Neil, I discovered your Tangents only about a year ago (all these comments are much older), mainly because I just started reading and searching more on photography. My favourite theme is flash and I find your comments extremely helpful and detailed, trying to go through all of them. Baaie dankie, Mike


35 Jon May 26, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Thank you for all the great info, love your site! I just upgraded to the D750 and was experimenting with my softbox in bright sunlight. The D750 has a new “highlight metering” mode, which is supposed to protect the highlights. I believe it is designed for stage lighting, and can often lead to an overall underexposed image, but I found it to be a perfect shortcut for this purpose.

I just set to highlight metering, and underexpose my meter by 2/3 or 1 stop and the ambient is mostly a non-issue. I find this easier than in normal metering mode because you don’t have to interpret what the meter is trying to exposure for overall, rather just placing the highlights. Have you tried this on any of your newer bodies?


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