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Shooting at Twilight


Keywords: flash, studio, lighting, filter, guides, tips

Taking it outside, as it turns out, using a flash outside to fill shadows, cross-light, and create stunning sunset portraits isn't much different from balancing flash with ambient indoors. The secret: expose for the background, light the subject.


Flash used to fill shadows from mid-day sun. 1/200th f10 ISO 100

My last lighting exercise was spent in the living room walking the shutter speed back from my D7000's max-sync speed to a full ambient exposure, firing the flash for each frame.

By the time I got within two stops of the correct ambient-only exposure, I was making good photos that balanced my flash with the ambient light in the room. In fact, it was pretty easy to see exactly what was happening with the light by doing this exercise. But does that hold true when you're working outdoors?

As it turns out, yes!

Let's start with the lede photo. The thing to remember about working outside with a speedlight is that compared to the sun, you don't have a whole lot of power, so often times the sun is going to serve as your key light and the flash will be used as a fill.

For the above shot, I started by taking a meter reading from my subject's face then closed the aperture down a stop to make that blue sky stay a nice rich blue. I also wanted more depth of field, so at f10 and ISO 100 I needed 1/200th of a second to get a proper background exposure. But there was a problem.

You should be able to tell where the sun is coming from in this picture. If not, it's to camera left, at about a 45 degree angle from the model and hanging pretty high in the sky. The problem here is that with that light alone, the shadows on her face, and the side of her face opposite the sun were going pretty dark. Especially so since I'd under-exposed the image by a stop.

The solution: Set up a flash at camera right a couple of feet away from me and about 5 feet from the model, up above her head slightly, and set to 1/2 power.

How did I figure on 1/2 power? Well, I fired a test frame and checked the back of my camera! Truth be told, at this point by default I start out with my flash at either 1/4 power or 1/8th power depending on the conditions I'm working in, fire a test frame and check my histogram. It's quick, easy, and less expensive than a flash meter! Now in these conditions, with a very, very bright sun, I knew I'd need to start out with a bit more power, so I went up to half power, and it did exactly what I'd planned. The shadows from the sun are filled in nicely, she's got a catch-light in her eyes and there's some depth to the image being created by the warm sunlight on her right side transitioning to very soft shadows across her face.

Why no umbrella, which I've been using all along in this series? Well, the first reason is because it was pretty windy that day, and I didn't have sandbags with me. But the more important reason is that any diffuser will cause you to lose a stop or two of light, and in the bright sun, I didn't have a lot of wiggle room with my flash power. I could have put an umbrella on and bumped the power up to full and probably got a good shot, but there really wasn't any need to complicate things further.

So that's basic fill flash in mid-day sun. Pretty simple, right? Well, stretching beyond that to, say, cross-lighting, isn't any more difficult.



Cross lighting with the sun and a single speedlight. 1/200th f/8 ISO 100


So the above image shows a bit more clearly how I approach using speedlights outside. For this image, I wanted to cross-light my subject so I had her stand in a spot with the sun coming in from camera left, behing her by about 45 degrees. The left-side of this image shows my initial exposure, which I had metered to be 1/200th at f8 ISO200. With the light coming in from behind, though, the parts of my subject facing the camera are very under-exposed. Exactly the right time to use my SB600!

I set my strobe up on a light stand at camera-right firing at the subject from the exact opposite direction as the sun. The stand was set a good 8 feet back, so I went to full power on my SB600. Notice that the exposure in the patch of sky behind her and the greens in the tree haven't changed at all. That's because I didn't make any changes to my camera settings and these areas of the image aren't getting any light from the flash. The subject, however, now has much more definition, some nice golden highlights along her right side, and proper exposure on her left side.

For my final speedlight outside exercise, I wanted to try and capture some of the magnificent colors that show up in the western skies over Vermont at sunset. The trouble with this is that time is really not on your side as the colors disappear rather quickly.

However, approaching this shoot the same way I'd been approaching the earlier shots made it a simple task to get a handful of decent shots, including the following.



Underexposing background, light the subject. 1/160th f4.5 ISO 200


Here's how it went down. We found our clearing with a good view to the west just as the colors were starting to show up. To me, that meant we had about twenty minutes before it got too dark for what I wanted. I immediately snapped a few shots of the horizon, checked my LCD and adjusted the exposure until I had the background that I wanted.

I quickly set up a light stand at camera left about 10 feet out from my subject and dialed the power on the strobe to 1/4th, snapped a shot of my model, checked my screen, moved the light a bit and we were good to go. From there, I just asked her to go through some various poses but stay in the same general area where I had the light pointing.

As the ambient light dropped off, I simply walked the shutter speed down from my initial exposure to compensate for darkening skies. The above shot, at 1/160th of a second, was somewhere in the middle of the twenty or so minutes we were out for. Towards the end, I was down at 1/80th of a second. And because I was only tinkering with the shutter, the flash exposure, my subject, didn't change at all.

In case I wasn't clear throughout this post, the process is pretty straight forward: expose for the background, power the flash to 1/4 or 1/8 power, snap a frame and check your LCD, adjust power and light position as needed. Want richer colors in your background? Underexpose the scene by a stop or two then alter your flash exposure using flash power or distance to expose your subject correctly. Need more light in the background? Walk the shutter speed down a stop or two. This, by the way, is called dragging the shutter, i.e. deliberately using a slower shutter speed to allow the background to burn into the image more. Remember, your flash will freeze motion, so you can pretty reliably handhold down to 1/40th of second or more if you've got a steady hand.

As always, thanks for reading and happy shooting, Nikonians!




(4 Votes )

Originally written on November 26, 2012

Last updated on January 24, 2021

User User


philippe ned baba (nevan) on August 28, 2016

Hello Josh, i thank you for this simple yet very explanatory demonstration. Your simple English made it clear too. Flash photography becomes simpler. Congratulations Josh.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on December 1, 2012

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Thanks for taking the time to do this, very helpful.

Kenneth V Martin (Ken Martin) on November 29, 2012

Would ou have gotten the same results with fill flash from the camera itself?

Micheal G. Juratovac (michealj) on November 27, 2012

Hello Josh, As a new Nikonian please allow me to thank you for clearing up something that has always been trouble for me - Flash & ambient light. Although short, you managed to penetrate this thich head. At least I have been inspired to start taking more outdoor photographs & using my flash to provide the needed fill light. Thanks so much, and please, keep on writing great and informitive articles!