flash photography: overpowering the sun with flash

flash photography: overpowering the sun with flash

The sunlight on Coney Island was pretty harsh during this photo session with Sarah and Mark, and I needed to / wanted to clean up the sun’s harsh shadows with flash.

Since the Sunny 16 rule has it that broad daylight is in the order of 1/250th @ f11 @ 100 ISO … you’d either have to shoot with a bare speedlight, (which, as a small light source, will cause hard shadows) .. or use a much more powerful strobe with a softbox.

For this image I used the Profoto AcuteB 600R lighting kit (B&H) with 2×3 Profoto softbox off to my right, adding flash at full power.  I placed the softbox and flash to come in from the same direction as the sunlight, adding as much light as the sun.  The intention is to clean up the shadows caused by the sunlight, and because I am then under-exposing the background by a stop ..  thereby also saturating the sky.
settings: 1/250th @ 160 ISO @ f22

(And yes, I can see the effects of diffraction at that aperture. There’s definitely more softness than I would’ve had at f8 or so. Next time I’ll try a ND filter, and see how that works out.  As for the amount of dust bunnies that rear their ugly little heads at f22 .. ouch!  Mucho cloning and spot healing brush.  And I thought I was fussy about keeping my sensor clean!)

In addition to cleaning up the dust spots, I also removed some people in the background and removed the reflection of the softbox that appeared in Mark’s sunglasses.  The image then had a little bit of extra sweetening done to it with some Photoshop fairy dust that I sprinkled over it.

Here are more images from the rest of the photo sessions in NYC,
including a video clip


related articles



photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo session

Nikon D3;   Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 AF-S (B&H);
Profoto AcuteB 600R power pack (B&H);  Profoto beauty dish (B&H);
Manfrotto 1004BAC (B&H);  Pocket-Wizard Plus II Tranceiver (B&H)

38 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Andy says

    Just a small correction: dust on your sensor cannot possibly have different effects when you change lens settings. f/11, f/22, f/8 – how would the sensor know? If you are seeing more dust at f/22 it must be from dust that is before the aperture.

  2. 2 says

    Hi there Andy ..

    Depth-of-field distinctly affects how clearly the dust spots show.
    So they are there .. but just not noticeable at fast apertures.

    If you’re continually working at fast apertures like f1.8 or such, you could very well not notice smaller spots that appear very noticeable at f22 or f16

    Neil vN

  3. 3Ron says

    I don’t have a D3, but is D3 capable of iso 160, or is that a typo? Did you meter for f22 or did you just chimp until you got the lighting you were satified with. Whenever I shot at high iso, my backgounds appear to look like a cheap studio back drop, with my subject pasted on it. How did you get your backgrond to look so natural at f22.

  4. 4 says

    Ron, the D3 has a base ISO of 200, but you can go lower than that, as L 0.3 and L 0.7 and L 1.0

    L 0.3 corresponds to 160 ISO, and that is how software programs reflect the ISO setting.

    This isn’t a high ISO, but a low ISO.

    The trick here is to have the settings so that the sky is (fairly) saturated), and then use enough flash on your subject to expose correctly for them.

    I would usually set this up with a flashmeter to get my basic settings, but I forgot my flashmeter at home. Instead, the Sunny 16 rule, and checking my LCD preview got me there in a few seconds too.

    Neil vN

  5. 5David says

    Hi Andy,
    There is a little test you can try with your own camera.

    Set your camera to your lowest ISO setting, then set your lens to the largest aperture possible,

    hold your camera in front of a blank piece of white paper (Just close enough so the paper fills the whole view but not so close as to stop light entering the lens)

    using manual focus make sure the piece of paper completely out of focus and take a shot or two,

    Then repeat the above test using the smallest aperture of your camera.

    Be prepared for a shock when you compare 100% crops from the second set of photos as this will expose all the sensor dust.

    This is the test I use to check how clean a cameras sensor is.
    I do hope this is helpful.
    Kind regards,

  6. 6 says

    Hey Neil,
    I like the idea to add soft but powerful flash from the same direction as the sun. Because it is so new to what I have read so far. Others claim the best way would be to add flash from a different direction. But you have shown that flash from the same direction can have a really great effect. And you can go one stop below ambient by this technique. I’m impressed.
    Kind regards,

  7. 7michael says

    Hey Neil, good stuff.Can you sugest I look at a 1000w/s external battery pack or will a 600 one be good enough. I don’t do a lot of outside work thus far but hoping for an increase in the near future?

  8. 8 says

    Michael … at full power with that 600 W/s pack, I still had to be aware of keeping the softbox close enough to the couple for enough light. (The Profoto is a double-baffled softbox so that does incur further light loss.)

    So the moment I would want even more light or put the softbox further back, or use a larger softbox, I’d be at the limit of what I can do with 600 W/s.

    For me, for now, it is enough and it was a huge step up from the 150 W/s of the Q-flashes I had been using.

    For a first time buy, if you can afford 1000 or 1200 W/s power-pack as location lighting, then go for it!

    Neil vN

  9. 9Jason Smith says


    I am interested in the part of your post where you talk about using an ND Filter next time to allow you to use a wider aperture. Wouldnt this require more flash power as the ND Filter would block light coming from the flash.

    I have the same problem with outdoor weddings in that as my aperture is often up around F11 / F16 adding enough fill requires more power than my SB800 can put out.

    I look forward to the rest of your posts on this. I am also anxiously awaiting the arrival of your book which is still some months away I believe.


  10. 10 says

    Jason, the neutral density (ND) filter does cut down the flash power by 3 stops (or however much the ND filter is) .. BUT .. the filter cuts the available light by the same amount.

    So your balance between flash and available light remains the same.

    Therefore the image at the top could’ve been taken at f8 instead of f22 and given me more choice in my ISO and aperture.

    I recently bought a 3x ND filter, but still untested so far. I will have to see whether it is actually useful though and doesn’t make the viewfinder too dark to see or impair the camera’s AF. I’ll post about this as soon as I have played with it properly.

    Neil vN

  11. 11Val says

    Neil, What a flash you have, at ISO 160 f22 you can still light up the subject. Aah, I want more power from my SB900!

  12. 12David Amberson says

    Neil, I like how over the last few posts or more, you have started also displaying the original to show the exact results. Often, photographers, including myself think we are the only ones who spice up our photos. Most think the first image you display is exactly what came from the camera, leading us to believe that when ours doesn’t have the “pop”, we have done something wrong or we have inferior equipment. Maybe we didn’t do what you told us to the right way?

    One example was the NYC Photo-Shootout Redux. The final image is stunning. I immediately started to wonder how you were getting those right out of the camera. Then as I read thru, you revealed the “magic”. I shouted and my wife came to me and I said, “I DONT SUCK” look Neil does it too! Hahahaha.

    All the things you do to your photos, I have been doing for years, but I didn’t know all Pros did them. I thought I wasn’t as good as I should be and it required post to get all the final results. I do get some that really need nothing more than skin touch up and some USM and that’s it. But it’s tough to get that every time. So I never show my Clients the originals.

    All the color adjusting, contrast, fill, sat, cloning….even the eye swapping trick….I’ve done that and thought, “Man you really need to start getting better in camera….I’m not the only one.

    Thanks Neil. Showing the originals give us an idea of what to expect from trying your method. We can compare and know that even the instructor adds some pop too. Thanks again and I read all the time, keep up the good work. I look forward to your next closest work shop to Alabama.

  13. 13 says

    David .. for the flash photography pages, I stayed away from photoshopping the images except for some skin blemishes. The intention was to show what could be done with careful use of flash .. and therefore manipulating the image in photoshop would just have obscured the message there.

    But as you’ve noticed recently, I wanted to show some images at their potential, instead of an image which could still have been improved on with some photoshop work.

    However, I want to stay true to the original intention of showing what can be done with lighting … and therefore I have to show the original image as a base reference here.

    I still believe though that the images I work on, are 90% of the way there, and that I am using Photoshop to sweeten the image, rather than try and save a poorly executed photograph.

    Anyway, I’ll continue to post the original photograph in these blog postings if I strayed far from from the out-of-the-raw-processor image.

    Neil vN

  14. 14Daniel says

    I am assuming that you nearly ran out of apertures being limited to max synch speed for the flash(hence f22)

  15. 15 says

    Daniel .. exactly. I had hit the ceiling with the maximum flash sync speed, and was at the smallest aperture .. which is why I had started to go below the optimal ISO setting for the D3.

    And that is why I want to see whether using an ND filter would be feasible .. and still shoot fast enough.

    Neil vN

  16. 16Rudy M says

    Neil – First, Great Blog! Thank you. You have helped me greatly in the past with your talent and you willingness to share it.
    A tip on opening your aperture a bit when trying to overpower the sun is to use a polarizer filter. I used a light meter to check and mine is exactly 2 stops of light reduction. Plus you get all the benefits of the filter effect!
    I also want to try a 3 or 4 stop ND filter but worry that it will make the view finder too dark. Since we are shooting in full sun, that may not make it too bad to work with – and it would allow for opening your aperture a bit more.

    -Rudy M

  17. 17 says

    Rudy .. you’re absolutely right.

    The polarizer should be the first step. It would get rid of some of the sheen on their skin, and also get rid of the glare and also saturate the skies.

    Neil vN

  18. 18Pat Bloomfield says

    Great pictures Neil – love the poses and high saturation.

    Just wanted to say it’s a shame that flash heads limit you to 1/250s. Under these conditions I think the humble flashgun can win with high-speed sync allowing you to still shoot wide open.

    A radio popper or latest pocket wizard is definitely on my wish list to get over the IR problems under strong light.

  19. 19 says

    @Pat Bloomfield. Flash guns aren’t the limiting factor, their flash lasts about 1/10,000th of a second. The mirror within the camera body is the limiting factor. A nikon D40 has a sync of 1/500th, my canon 5D’s sync @ 1/200th but my my friends 1D Mk III syncs @ 1/320th. If I am on location with sun and flash, I’ll use my Canon 50D and can cync up to 1/400th depending on how much flash I dump and how I frame.

    Niel, I was wondering, do you ever use reflectors on location or even a large diffusion panel to diffuse the sun? And if you do, what’s your thoughts on that. I’ve recently started to play with just using a big white bed sheet on a frame to diffuse the sun and then use a combo of strobes and reflectors to light on location.

    JP Lumansoc

  20. 20 says

    JP … I don’t use reflectors. I find it faster to work with flash, (even if bounced into a reflector), than finesse it with trying to find enough light to bounce into the shadow areas of my subject.

    But I’ve seen enough fantastic work where the light was sweetened with reflectors, to readily agree that it is very much a viable way of working with light.

    However, in very bright conditions like these, I wonder if a reflector would be effective.

    Neil vN

  21. 21 says

    This is a GREAT little blog ;-)

    The limitations of planeshutters, that are used in most of todays standard DSLRs, should now be obvious to everyone.
    There is – of cause – annother way, the professional way:

    If a pro were to shoot a great number of bikinis ( – for a client with the right budget !), the pro might use a high-end camera platform, like a Hasselblad or a LEAF.

    The LEAF AFi-II(10) can capture at ISO50, and the shutter of the Schneider AFD Tele-Xenar 150mm f/4 HFT PQS ( -or any other PQS) can sync at 1/1000 sec !

    So still using the Sunny 16 Rule, the pro can with this equipment shot at ISO50, 1/1000 sec @ f/4 !

    This is good news for many reasons:
    The large sensor of the LEAF (56x36mm) combined with the large working apperture, creates a beautyfully narrow DOF, to isolate the model and product from any distraction backgrund.
    The four to five stop faster shuttertimer, is much better at freezing any play with the water at the beach,
    and shooting a f/4, means that MUCH less flashpower is required to overpower the sun.

    A typical 12000ws portable battery generator, from either Pro, Elin, Hensel or Bron, now suddenly comes to life, an the pro may now begin to use slow modifyers like softboxes or diffused ringflashes.

    The only bad news is the price of the gear… c’est la vie ;-)

  22. 22Claybrook says

    Hi Neil, Thanks again for the wonderful tips. I am curious, for this specific shooting situation, what you would have done or would suggest for someone with cheaper flash equipment, say one or two speedlights?

  23. 24Ken says

    Beautiful pics and awesome website. Love all the great information you give. Thank you so much. That girl is amazing!! Any other pics?!?

  24. 26Alfredo Medina says

    Hi Neil,

    You used that procedure to remove the reflection in the glasses of Mark?. This work I never do as well as you have done.

    Thanks again,


  25. 28Nakean says

    Great post I know this is from sometime back but it still is a nice reference point for those who are looking to move into studio strobes for location shooting! As of now I have no way of combating the sun. I use only speedlites rated around 45w/s! I was starting to think I only needed an ab400 at 160w/s but thanks to this post, I’m starting to think that’s not going to be enough at all! I’m not always going to want to overpower the sun but I don’t want to be limited by it either. The hardest part is finding a system(inexpensive) that can fire 600 to 1000ws but still dial way down! I’ve got my version of overpowering the sun here… https://nakean.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/over-powering-the-sun-craze/

  26. 30 says

    Sadly, I ran into this problem this weekend, except I forgot to switch over to manual flash and try to dump flash at full power. My mistake was running up the shutter speed. I had settings of 1/1000, f9, @ ISO 200, with a 3-top ND filter, but I was stupid to have stayed in TTL flash mode. I had both baffles out, but I couldn’t get the softbox closer to the subject, because the softbox’s shador started to be in the picture.

    I need to try this again.

  27. 31 says

    Stephen … a couple of mistakes there.

    If you want to over-power the sun:
    stay away from high-speed sync!
    – keep to maximum flash sync speed.

    At your lowest ISO then, find your relevant aperture.
    Deliver as much flash as that aperture and ISO setting dictates.

    Only use the ND filter if you’re subsequently chasing shallow depth-of-field.

    Neil vN

  28. 32 says

    Thanks for the reply.

    I’m going to have to put the flash into manual and see how much flash I can generate at my aperture and ISO.

    I’ll have to use the camera histogram/blinking highlights/Sunny 16 to help me verify the exposure, since I don’t have a light meter.

  29. 33NorCal Nikon says

    It’s a great shot Neil. I am totally envious.

    Can I ask how you got the warm skin tones though? I’ve been using flash through softboxes and umbrellas, and the light from the flash always seems cooler than the light from your shot.

    Were you using a gel of some kind? Did you manually adjust the white balance? Are the models slathered in fake tan lotion?

    I usually shoot with the white balance set for flash, or daylight, or cloudy skies, so the white balance SHOULD be warming the colors. Yet my flash usually appears quite cool.

    Anyway, thanks in advance.

  30. 34 says

    The models did have a good tan, but the deep color is mostly due to post-processing. In fact, I think I may have taken it a step too far, pushing up the Vibrance.

    I don’t do manual WB … I adjust the RAW file afterwards as part of my normal post-processing.

    I think what may have helped here, is the lighting kit … the Profoto gives beautiful light, especially when used with the large softbox.

    Neil vN

  31. 35Lawrence says

    I don’t think anyone mentioned the technique where you use the electronic shutters of older bodies, like the D40, D50 & D70. With these cameras, you can sync all the way up to 1/8000s (most reliable up to 1/4000s)… you just need a TTL cable where you tape over a couple of pins to fool the camera into not knowing there is a speedlight connected. Buy a long cable, if you want to do a lot of strobist work.

    With simple radio triggers, you can sync to 1/800s. With PW probably over 1/2000s.
    If only Nikon (or other brands) re-introduced electronic shutters – or hybrid shutters… imagine a 36MP D800 with 1/8000s sync capabilities…

  32. 37Florian L. says

    Hi, Neil. I have watched the video clip and I really like to know what the cable is for (the cable that goes from the top to the bottom of your camera)? It must have something to do with triggering the flash but I don`t know what.

    Liebe Grüße


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