overpowering hard sunlight with flash

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)

35 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says


    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. 2Michael Sharman says

    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. 3 says

    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. 5 says

    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

  5. 6Neil vN says

    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

  6. 10Neil vN says

    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

  7. 11Robb Mac says

    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!

  8. 12Ned says

    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

  9. 13RG says

    @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.

  10. 14Neil vN says

    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

  11. 16 says

    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)


  12. 18Linda says

    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!!

  13. 19Neil vN says

    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

  14. 20Adam Baruh says

    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

  15. 23Neil vN says

    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

  16. 24Carol says


    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.

  17. 25Neil vN says

    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

  18. 26Alfredo Medina says

    Hi Neil.

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

    Best regards,


  19. 28Joe says

    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?

  20. 29Neil vN says

    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

  21. 30Kris says

    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?


  22. 31Neil vN says

    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

  23. 32Mentor Mike says

    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!!!!!

  24. 34Mike Zubrinic says

    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

  25. 35Jon says

    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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