Overpowering the sun with Off-Camera Flash – What are my settings?
Teaching a class on using off-camera flash at a photography convention, I took a group of attendees outside on the street with two models. Then I stepped them through the thought-process in how to get to your basic, fail-safe, works-everytime settings for off-camera flash. We specifically looked here at camera and flash settings to match / over-power the sun.
Regular visitors to the Tangents blog and those who have read my books on flash photography, should know the algorithm off by heart. There’s a specific thought-process that will get you to your basic camera & flash settings when working in bright sunlight, where you have to overpower the sun with a single speed light.
Instead of re-treading this ground myself, and re-stating everything, I thought it would be good to have everyone work through this themselves. It’s a good check to see if you’re familiar with what you need to do. There’s a very specific series of decisions you make that gets you to where you need to be with your camera and flash setting – and then you can concentrate on composition and everything else that is important in taking a photograph. The camera settings choice should be second nature and should take you a few seconds.
So here’s the challenge – call it homework if you will:
- What are my (typical) camera & flash settings for the photograph at the top?
- How did I arrive at these settings?
To help out a little bit, here’s the pull-back shot. Don’t be confused by the multiple speed light setup. This is just to allow a group of students to shoot together. (Thank you to Angie for being an awesome model and patient with everyone.)
If you’re struggling with the concepts and thought-process, here are related articles, as well as video tutorials on flash photography.
Direction & Quality of Light
I wanted to distill the essence of what we, as photographers, work with – light! Before we can truly grasp on-camera flash and off-camera flash, and really, any kind of photography, we have to be aware of the direction and quality of light. We need to observe the light that we have, and then decide how best to use it, or enhance it.
With this book, I try my best to share those “aha!” moments with you, and I do believe this book can make a difference to your photography.
The book is available on Amazon USA and Amazon UK, or can be ordered through Barnes & Nobles and other bookstores. The book is also available on the Apple iBook Store, as well as Amazon Kindle.
- Controlling bright daylight w/ direct off-camera flash (model: Molly K)
- Overpowering hard sunlight with flash (model: Johannie)
- Overpowering the sun with flash (models: Sarah & Mark)
- Practical tutorial: controls for manual flash exposure (model: Hannah)
- Applying the Sunny 16 rule and the flash Guide Number (models: Yulia & Anelisa)
- After Dark Edu – St Louis, MO – April 2014
72 Comments, Add Your Own
1Eugene Struthers says
No worries. Just remember that your Shutter speed controls your ambient light and the aperture control your flash.
Your flash out put should be:- Make a mental note of this.
Flash Power 1/1 1/2 1/4 1/8 1/16
Aperture F/16 f/11 F/8 f/5.6 f/4 @ sync speed 250 sec dark and moody image lower it slowly to introduce the ambient light slowly. Great technique if you want dark blue skies for full length portraits.
ISo Settings 100 200 400 800
F 1/1 POWER F/8 F/11 F/16 F/22
A 1/2 POWER F/5.6 F/8 F/11 F/16
H 1/4 POWER F/4 F/5.6 F/8 F/11
P 1/8 POWER F/2.8 F/4 F/5.6 F/8
W 1/16 POWER F/2 F/2.8 F/4 F/5.6
R 1/32 POWER F/1.4 F/2 F/2.8 F/4
so say you want to use an Aperture of f/8 you will lower the power on your flash whilst increasing your ISO.
Hope this helps you out.
1.1Neil vN says
This is far too complex, and you’re making it more difficult than it need be for quick decisions while shooting on location. The actual algorithm is simpler.
2Riekert cloete says
I would guess:
Flash: manual – 1/1
Probably zoomed a bit – 50mm
Appeture: this is the tough part… F11?
2.1Neil vN says
The aperture is dependent on what we want to exposure correctly for in the background – the bright sky / the darker buildings / etc. So this will vary.
In other words, you’re entirely correct with this. And the aperture will depend on the scenario.
2.1.1Angela Austin says
Awesome information ,thks for sharing
So I’ll start by saying: 1/250s @ F11 @ ISO100 and full flash power
and here is why: 1/250s (max sync speed of the D4) for most efficient flash use
Sunny 16-rule gives 1/100 @ F16 @ ISO 100 which is roughly equivalent to 1/250s @ F11 @ ISO100
You probably needed all the speedlight could offer when shooting against the sun, so full manual flash.
Thanks a lot for the post, Neil. Did you zoom in the flash reflector to ‘focus’ the light output?
3.1Neil vN says
(I kept the flash zoomed to (as far as I remember) 24mm.)
4Sam Bahri says
the ambient is under exposed by not less than one stop… the f stop used is F16 or F22 because of the star effect the aperture on the sun with star look.. so i guess that the ambient is F16 @ 1/250 ISO 100 ….is single flash will be at full power 1/1
4.1Neil vN says
And the distance?
4.2Sam Bahri says
the distance if we are shooting manual flash then it will be GN/the F-stop we choose to expose for the background….and the GN change according to the zoom degree we use for the flash head…
4.2.1Neil vN says
5Peter Salo says
I will agree with Jörg and say your camera was set according to the Sunny 16 rule then, you adjusted the flash power/ distance manually to get a good exposure on the subject.
Addendum: Maybe underexpose a bit since you’re shooting almost directly into the Sun.
1) Max sync speed
2) Lowest ISO
3) Aperture adjusted for correct ambient exposure
4) Flash set to TTL or using manual set power using the flash range displayed on the LCD.
6.1Neil vN says
You’ve been here before. ;)
And yes, this is exactly it. The thought-process that works every time.
7Graham Eariss Photography says
Max sync speed for shutter to cut as much ambient as possible while using flash (no HSS because it reduces flash power). Lowest ISO possible again to cut out available light. Flash at full power in manual 1/1 Use aperture to get ambient as low as possible while still letting enough flash power in, probably around f/11 and move your flash closer if you need more light. A second flash at full power increases flash output by one stop so you might get f/16 if using both?
7.1Neil vN says
No second flash was used this time. Everything is correct with your decision-making here.
8Eduardo B. says
F/11 or F/16.
SB-910 Full Power.
8.1Neil vN says
How did we decide on the distance the flash should be from our model?
8.1.1Jon Lloyd says
Distance was not the issue (within reason) as the Flash was set to TTL
18.104.22.168Neil vN says
Nope, not TTL. Set to full manual output.
9Jon Lloyd says
Camera was set to “stun” :)
According to the algorithm, underexposed the scene by say, 1-3 stops, depending on how bright you want the background and let the flash dominate. So, let’s say we’re at sunny 16, iso 100, 1/125 sec, f16. We set the camera to say 1/250, f22 (two stops under exposed) and then fire the flash at a power level that lights the model sufficiently (or use TTL?).
10.1Neil vN says
Not so much the scene we are (under) exposing for. Looking at the background, there are 3 main areas of brightness – the sky (excluding the sun)
– shadowed parts of the buildings
– the sun on the road.
We can only expose correctly for one of those areas. So we chose the sky – hence the composition.
And no, not TLL. Manual is easier here.
I use bare flash a lot in sunlight mostly because I am alone and the sun is hard anyway so why try to balance with a diffused light source. What is your comment on this.
I also find that balancing the sun with flash looks better if the flash is under exposing the shade side by a stop or so and this looks softer to me and less harsh than a 1 to 1 exposure.
Portraits are not my main interest as I like nature shots and usually use fill flash at -1 2/3rds in TTL-BL. Maybe my thinking for portraits is not proper because of this?
11.1Neil vN says
Not TTL. Manual flash is easier here. And more consistent.
To get the distance needed at a given manual flash power (in this case, full power), Neil posted once that you could take that off-camera flash and put it on your camera, and read the distance value that appears on the LCD. But, that may not be a fast workflow.
Also, if you need want wide-open apertures in bright sun to isolate the subject from the background, you will want to use a neutral density filter.
I’m still curious to know how the distance for these settings was determined. Neil has so much experience that it is definitely second-nature to him. If Neil didn’t have the time to mount the flash on the camera to get a distance reading, is there another way to determine distance relatively quickly?
12.1.1Neil vN says
The Nikon speedlights show the distance for the chosen ISO / aperture / flash power.
Thanks for replying, Neil. I haven’t used my Nikon SB-900 in manual yet. It’s something I need to experiement with next.
So, the Nikon speedlights will show the distance for the chosen ISO/aperture/flash power even when not mounted on the camera. I need to find time to look at those controls.
Max flash sync
Aperture to correct ambient light add 1 or 2 to get some drama to the BG
Flash to TTL,
Let the magic happen
13.1Neil vN says
Exactly as you have it, but with flash to full manual output. Why full output?
I would say primarily because in this situation you won’t really get away with anything less than full output, depending on the distance you have the flash to the subject.
But full output would only be the starting point in this situation, just like a lower power setting would be your “best guess” starting point when you were shooting in a lower light/larger aperture scenario?
In both situations you’d refine the flash distance/power output accordingly to match the aperture/ISO of the camera anyway, possibly using a flash meter.
Sunny-16 rule as starting point:
– Shutter speed is set to max flash sync speed (1/250 or 1/200, depends on camera).
– Lowest ISO.
– Aperture “should” be around f16 give or take. Adjust to control ambient exposure or DOF.
– Manual flash to give consistent exposure & most likely we hit full power on speedlight anyway.
– If subject is too dark, put more flash power or extra speedlight (to overpower sunlight).
– If subject is too bright, put ND + flash power or extra speedlight.
Of course when possible, place the flashlight near to subject to get most of the flash GN as possible.
Zooming the flash head also helps.
But this will have trade-off giving a harsher light/shadow on subject.
14.2Neil vN says
The Neutral Density filter here doesn’t do what I think you think it is doing here?
Neil, you’ve said that you had your flash zoom set to 24mm. Would setting it to say 80mm or 105mm make the flash output more efficient? I appreciate the light output is the same, but it’s more concentrated, so at these zoom levels you won’t have the spread of light you would get from 24mm.
Also, would tilting the bare flash head vertically on its side make much of a difference for a full-body shot?
Does the D4 allow ISO Low of 50? You do not necessarily “need” full power from flash, but to balance with the “ambient” light a lot of flash power will be needed. On the move down and dirty, Set flash to TTL-BL, 0.0 Flash-exp., Shutter Priority set to Max sync speed of 1/250th. Use exp. comp. “on this fixed subject” to adjust/control highlights on the face.
16.1Neil vN says
Explain how a lower ISO would mean less flash when balancing flash with (bright) available light?
Also 1/4 CTO or CTS Gel on flash to warm to taste.
Sunny 16 is at 6ft. Moving it in or out according to the inverse square law of light will give you some more wiggle room. Am I close???
18.1Neil vN says
The Inverse Square Law doesn’t come into play here.
19Charles Hsu says
I have been learning so much from your website but one problem that still bothers me is how you would determine the distance of the flash without mounting it on top of the camera (as someone mentioned above) in this scenario? Is it just a matter of shooting, experimenting, and adjusting? Gut feeling tells me that there is a more refined approach than that.
Also, wouldn’t shooting in TTL mode do the trick? Please correct me if I am wrong.
Thanks again Neil for all the posts!
19.1Neil vN says
Nikon speedlights show the distance for the chosen aperture / ISO / flash power.
The default ISO is set in the menu of the flash, if there is no camera attached.
(Which means you shoot with Canon?)
You can put your flash on the camera to see what it says, or
you can use the Guide Number of your flash, or
you have memorized the distance you need to hold your flash for 1/1 and 1/2 power for f/8 and f/11 and f/16.
TTL in this case wouldn’t do the trick. That bright splash of sun there in the frame will most likely affect your TTL flash metering. So go with Manual flash.
19.1.1Charles Hsu says
Thanks Neil for the reply!
I know what went wrong – I had to adjust the head of the flash from bounce position to horizontal position (pointing forward) for it to show the distance scale. Much better now :)
Not necessarily less balancing, as to, not “as” crippled by the low flash sync of modern hi res cameras. ISO 50 will allow one less f-stop, getting us closer to f-11 for less diffraction, unless we want a softer image for artistic effect.
21Christopher Steven B. says
I think I would have guessed: ISO 100, 1/200, F/9 — the sky isn’t exactly knocked down as much as one could–though it’s balanced here and not at all in-your-face about the flash usage.
One cool thing about this shot is that in a pinch you could go over your min sync speed a little (if you wanted to squeeze another stop from the background) — so long as it’s only background in the portion of the frame going ‘dark’.
22Dan Banks says
The GN of your flash will determine the flash to subject distance
22.1Neil vN says
.. the distance then is also shown on the display of your flash.
23Wick Beavers says
Set your camera on auto, aperture priority.
Snap the picture with your lights set at your aperture setting.
To get a little more pop, set your exposure at -1 leaving lights same as first shot.
23.1Neil vN says
Why aperture priority?
Let’s say you go with aperture priority.
Your exposure for ambient light is going to change as you change your composition.
Let’s say your camera goes over max sync speed – oops. You get a black band across part of your frame.
Let’s say your camera remains below max sync speed – you’re losing effectiveness of your flash.
Meaning, 1/30 @ f/22 is more difficult for your flash, compared to 1/60 @ f/16 … which is still more difficult for your flash than 1/125 @ f/11 … which still isn’t as efficient as … tadaaa! max-sycn speed at f/8 (for this example)
So by going to Auto / Aperture Priority, you’re bringing in variations that just complicate things for you.
Stay with the algorithm:
I will try to answer without reading the answers neither re-reading the article and the book :), I never praticed this situation thanks for this exercice.
Here my thought process:
-Sun equals lots of power, so I will need a lot of power.
-it also means low ISO and aperture around f11 or more if I don’t want to go in high sync speed mode (and loose power).
-so, I will forget the idea of having a blured backgroung, I will go for low Iso, f11 or so, and set my ambient light that way to get the speed around 1/250, so at the limit of high sync. This way, I get the biggest aperture I can (the smaller f stop)to save some flash power.
-Unfortunately, my flash will probably use its full output power so I better bring spear batteries, and keep the distance between the model and the flash small.
-also, I can forget about light modifiers like my umbrella it will be a loss of power as well.
-an other possibility is to use multiple flash to save power.
But to keep it simple, I would not do this unless I don’t have other choice, if I need a blurred backgroung I would have to do so because I would be in hss region with f2.8 for sure, or I could use nd filter.
24.1Neil vN says
A how do you then get f/11worth of light from your flash?
On another note: don’t confuse the terminology of aperture and f-stop. The numerical value doesn’t come into play when describing your aperture / f-stop as being large.
Large = wide.
f/2.8 is large, and f/16 is small, regardless of whether you call it aperture or f-stop.
Flash at full output power, and manual mode ! :) (by the way I am so glad to use flash in manual whenever I can now, following your advice in the book, here or in the forum, it made so much difference…)
Thank you for the note about aperture and f stop, I will remember it for next time.
1) Camera Setting: Manual
Sunny 16 Rule – Meter against the sky (so building will be dark) – ISO=100, Aperture f16, @1/125
Normally Neil refers to shoot outdoor with flash @1/250 (max flash HSS for Nikon flash)
So camera setting will be: ISO-100, f11, @1/250s (shuttle: -1-stop -> Aperture: +1-stop)
2) Flash (SB900): has GN=34 (ISO-100) and 48(ISO-200) – Set at full power (1/1) for easy calculation of distance
GN = Aperture * Distance => Distance = 34 / 11 = 3.09 m or 3 meter.
Is it fair to say that the answer to the challenge set by Neil is the exact same answer you’d give to any other lighting situation? In other words, get the ambient exposure you want then bring in the flash. It just so happens that in this specific scenario the only thing virtually guaranteed is that you will be at max flash sync speed, lowest ISO and most likely at full flash power, so realistically there can be no other starting point. You can’t really give specific answers on the aperture required, other than it’s going to be narrow.
26.1Neil vN says
Keep adjusting it till you get rid of the over exposure on, face skin. If you have the time.
27.1Neil vN says
That’s too hap-hazard. Your first shot – the test shot – should pretty much already nail it.
28Neil vN says
Just a reminder to everyone – if you are using a Nikon SB-800 / SB-900 / SB-910, or a Canon 580EX or 900EX or any similar larger speedlight, and you can’t see the distance scale – then get your speedlight out of the bounce position.
Set the speedlight to aim straight forward.
29Scott Angelheart says
When I went from a D70 1/500 flash sync to a D90 1/200 flash sync, it was very hard to adjust. I can no longer shoot outdoors in bright sunlight and get the depth of field I want (f8 and below). With digital, there’s no curtain so there’s no reason cameras can’t sync at much higher speeds. The Nikon D90 doesn’t shoot natively at iso 100. At 200 iso F11, the background is slightly overexposed.
30Valent Lau says
With pro Nikons you can set your flash to 1/320s *FP and then shoot at 1/320s and not be in FP mode. Yes I know it’s only 1/3rd stop, but since you’re shooting in manual there’s no danger of accidentally going into FP and well, you get 1/3 stop at a setting where you’ve maxed out everything else.
30.1Neil vN says
It’s not nearly as much difference as you think:
31jay sharma says
I am facing a predicament …while photographing a subject against the dark background…I reduce the ambient light by setting the camera settings to f11, 1/250 at ISO 100( metered exposure is f11 25 at ISO 100). now wen I use flash in manual mode at the indicated distance on flash(sb700).. the image is very underexposed…..my understanding is that ambient exposure is diff from flash exposure..and manual flash when fired from the distance indicated on flash should properly expose the subject…but that is not happening…where am I going wrong…
31.1Neil vN says
It should work exactly like that, and with the exposure fairly close.
What camera are you using?
32jay sharma says
33Neil vN says
Try it at 1/200 and 1/160 – just below max flash sync – and see if this affects your flash exposure?
34jay sharma says
I have tried that also…is it possible that indicated distance has been miscalculated…?
34.1Neil vN says
The camera / flash manufacturers are usually a bit optimistic, and you may well have to open up 1/3rd or even 2/3rds of a stop from what the display says, or the Guide Number indicates. But it shouldn’t be hugely under-exposed.
Are you using any kind of diffuser? Or just bare flash?
35jay sharma says
another input…when I switch to ttl it displays-3 EV
35.1Neil vN says
After you fire?
36jay sharma says
36.1Neil vN says
Then your flash is telling you it thinks it under-exposed by 3 stops.