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Technique: Shooting Against Strong Backlight (with Flash!)

This blog has been moved to joshliba.com/blog, and you are currently viewing an archived post.  To visit the new blog, click here!

This went up yesterday on the Josh Liba Photography Facebook page!  Here is a larger version, with some behind-the-scenes notes for photographers below.

Jackie & Luis

You’ll notice some HARSH mid-day sun behind them.  Any camera on full-auto is going to have a hard time with this situation, because of the extreme contrast of light.  So how do you get the shot?

First, when you see the scene, it looks like this… My eyes can’t even take this amount of sun! Overwhelmingly bright!

Doesn’t it just make you want to squint?  Well that’s exactly what your subjects will do if you face them toward the sunlight.  The old photographic rule to “keep the sun over your shoulder” is not the key to making your subjects look their best.  They’ll have tight eyebrows, squinty eyes and an awkward smile… and in this case, there would be no lake facing the other way!

Ideally, you might come back and do the same scene at sunset, and the lighting would be much easier to work with.  But unless you’re a time-traveling wedding photographer, we have to work with what we’ve got! Now!

For this scene, I’ve got…

  • A DSLR that can trigger an off camera flash. (In this case, D300s)
  • A Speedlite Flash Unit (In this case, SB-900)
  • A Lightstand, Flash Bracket, and Shoot-Through White Umbrella (In this case, a 7-foot stand and Westcott 42-inch White Umbrella)

First, we need to switch to MANUAL mode to bring down the background exposure to an acceptable level – the way you would like it to look behind your subject.

In order, we’ll adjust:

  1. ISO
  2. Shutter speed
  3. Aperture.

In harsh light situations, drop your ISO as low as possible.  On my camera, this is around ISO 100.

Next, we push the shutter speed to as fast as we can go keeping in mind that we are going to add flash later!  This usually means 1/250th of a second.  Why?  Most cameras cannot sync flash at speeds faster than 1/250sec, and even if they can, (High Speed Sync) the power of your flash is drastically reduced once you cross the normal 1/250 sec sync speed.  So I usually dial in 1/250 sec shutter speed by default.

Last, we need to adjust the aperture size!  This is where you can eyeball the LCD until you think it looks good, or follow your built-in light meter to achieve the exposure you want.  I wanted the background to be a bit under exposed, with very little white blowout.  I kept closing my aperture until I got the level that I wanted.  In this particular case, I ended up at f/16.

With those camera settings, now how does the scene look?

1/250 sec at f/16, ISO 100

Much better.  We’re keeping all the detail in the water, with the faint sky color registering as well.  This is how I want the background to look with my subjects in it!  So now that I have my settings for the background, let’s put our Bride and Groom in there:

1/250 sec at f/16, ISO 100

Whoa!  Kinda dark!  Since we modified our settings to make the background dark, our subject is in the dark too!  Let’s bring in some flash.

I mount my flash to fire remotely through a white umbrella, mounted on a stand to my left, about 3 feet away, facing my subjects.
The flash is on Manual mode at full power (1/1) I trigger the flash unit by using Commander Mode on my Nikon Camera.  This uses the little built in pop-up flash to trigger the flash on the stand.

If you don’t have Commander Mode on your Nikon (or other) camera you can still control an off-camera flash with a sync cable, or radio remotes (PocketWizards if you’re rich, Cactus Remotes if you’re poor.  …I’m poor.)

So!  With this mounted, remote triggered flash at full power through an umbrella from 3 feet away we get…

1/250 sec at f/16, ISO 100 // Flash 1/1 Power, 3 ft left through umbrella.

Ooo, better!  But I still need a bit more light!  What can I do?  My flash is already firing at full power!  To get more flash efficiency at this point, you can do one of three things: Move the light closer, open the aperture more, or raise the ISO.  But remember!  You set the Aperture and ISO for the background.  If you change those things, the background will change too!

I chose to move the light closer, actually holding the stand in my left hand, umbrella just barely out of frame.
I also opened the aperture up juuuust a little bit, from f/16 to f/13. This changes the background just a bit!

So with closer light, and a slightly larger aperture, we get this:

1/250 sec at f/13, ISO 100 // Flash 1/1 Power, 1 ft left through umbrella.

Perfect!  We have well-lit subjects against a well-exposed background. This is the picture you take home on the memory card.

Later on my computer in touch up, I added some color to the water, brought the fill-light up a little more and increased the contrast, and added a round vignette:

Congratulations!  You have fought against the hard, harsh, bright light of the blazing sun, and won!

And by the way: Congratulations to this beautiful couple, Jackie and Luis, who just got married this past Monday!
This is the first of many pictures to come from a great wedding!

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. David #

    Josh, this is awesome picture, and I really appreciate your sharing how to do it. Excellent work, Bro!

    June 3, 2011
  2. Pia #

    What a great how-to guide! The way you let us follow your thoughts and see it in pictures, perfect!:) (even I now understand)
    Thanks for sharing and beautiful picture!

    June 3, 2011
  3. Josh, notice you use wordpress. I have a question if you can help, can you email me?

    June 8, 2011
  4. ive been looking for a simple run through with example shots and this hits it, def trying this out, just ordered my umbrellas!

    August 24, 2012
  5. Jon #

    Josh,

    You didn’t mention about the metering. You can do a lot of things with proper metering in addition to the flash and ambient light.

    September 19, 2013
  6. thaks for sharing it is higly appreciated, just a bug is that the lake is a kind of running out to the left, a swift straiten would have been good. I always has the waterline just over the shoulders but under the ear just my 2 cents

    July 30, 2014
    • Hi Soren! This is a super old blog post that has been moved ti a different location now. You can check out my current hobby blogs at prophotoguide.com (opening August 2014) and my personal work blog at joshliba.com

      And as for the photo, I would definitely straighten out the horizon if I were to take the picture again. Thankfully it’s a quick fix in any software editing program, as you mentioned. I appreciate the comment! I hope you’ll come visit Pro Photo Guide and contribute there in the future too! 🙂

      July 30, 2014

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