On Assignment: Taming Harsh Sunlight

Whenever I am setting up an assignment to go photograph someone, I like to give myself as many advantages as possible.

I am always aware of when sunset (and, less enthusiastically, sunrise) will occur, and plan shoots around that time if there is some flexibility.

Sadly, we can't always plan our shoots to start a few minutes before "golden light" and finish up shooting strobe into a sunset. Ah, would that it were always thus.

But getting back to reality, take Morris Martick, above, who is an 83-year-old chef/owner of a funky, bohemian little French restaurant in a, uh, "not very trendy" part of Baltimore.

There is no handle on the door, and it stays locked. You ring the bell and Morris lets you in. When you take a cab to this place at night, the driver will usually look at you and ask, "are you sure this is the place?"

Anyway, we had shot a restaurant review but had nothing good of Martick, so I went back to make a quick portrait that could run with the review.

I knew I was going to shoot him out by his funky, hand-painted, South-of-France-looking sign, so I asked when he would be free.

Eleven o'clock a.m.? Great. 'Bye.


So, there's not a cloud in the sky and the light is just as harsh (and from just as bad of an angle) as you would expect. Coming in high at ~45 degrees from camera right (see inset photo.)

When working fast in a situation like this, I sometimes like to co-opt the sun as my second light in a 2-light, 45-degree setup. Can't cross light him because there is no room behind him. Doesn't matter if the sun cannot get up under the guy's brow. Just make sure your flash is able to get up under there and light his eyes.

The setup for this could not be simpler, and yields a "1960's" kind of two-hard-light look.

I set the shutter to the highest synch speed, which for a Nikon D2h is 1/250th. Zero out the ambient exposure with the aperture. Flash goes up on a stand at camera left (45 degrees) at ~1/4 power, zoomed to 85mm for maximum efficiency. (Make sure the flash is high enough to look good on him, but not too high to get up under his brow.)

At 1/4 power, the strobe (about 5 feet away) was too hot. So it was just a matter of opening up the shutter speed and closing down the aperture until I got a ratio that I liked. That way the ambient exposure remains the same and the flash exposure lessens becaused of the increasing aperture.

If the strobe had been too weak, I would have cranked the power to bring it up some. Quick and easy either way. And no flash meter is needed, thanks to the TFT screen on the back of the digital camera. (Hey, if you want to buy a flash meter anyway, be my guest. I have one I'll sell you.)

As you can see from the third photo, I use my hand to quickly nail down my light, usually before the subject is even there. Quick, accurate and easy. Only downside is the fact that you can get some strange looks from people on the city streets if you are walking around photographing your own hand.

You get a crispness and three-dimensionality from this quickie setup that you just cannot get using on-camera fill. And it takes maybe a minute to set up.

The important thing to remember is that doing something like this should quickly grow to be a default setting for you as a photographer. This should be a bare minimum strobe technique, the way many people now view on-camera fill flash.

If you are doing stuff like this by rote for quickie, everyday assignments, when you decide to stretch you will have a comfort level that allows you to push your light and do something really cool.

On-camera fill flash should be an absolute last resort, used only when nothing else is practical.

Next: Big Gym, Little Lights


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Anonymous Brady Dillsworth said...


I just happened upon your site today and I appreciate what you write :)

Great lighting and minimal gear go hand in hand with my work and it is nice to see someone who thinks the same way.


April 13, 2006 2:15 AM  
Blogger David said...


I have been doing this for more than 20 years now. And I can tell you that, for most photojournalists, the amount of gear they carry is inversely proportional to their experience level.

When I was right out of school, I remember readiing how Larry Price (a hotshot Pulitzer Prize winner) typically took two bodies, a 28 f/2.8 and a 70-200 zoom for his overseas assignments. I just sat there in disbelief. If anyone would have given me anassignment to go overseas at that point - which they WERE NOT exactly lining up to do - I would have probably needed a panel truck to carry the gear I (thought I) needed...


April 13, 2006 4:02 PM  
Anonymous John said...


your blog is informative, consice, and practical. keep it coming!

April 13, 2006 9:52 PM  
Blogger Curtis said...

This is the most thought-provoking site on lighting I have ever seen. Keep it up!

As for this particular shot, f/16 and ISO 100 would have given you the same exposure with less diffraction and plenty of DOF. While the difference may not have been noticeable on newsprint, I don't understand going past ISO 100 in daylight.

September 17, 2006 7:40 PM  
Blogger Curtis said...

This is the most thought-provoking site I have ever seen on lighting. Keep up the good work!

For this shot, f/16 and ISO 100 would have given you the same exposure with less diffraction and plenty of DOF. I don't understand going past ISO 100 in broad daylight.

September 17, 2006 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Nikon D2H has sensitivity of 200-1600. There is no such thing as ISO 100 on this body. I think it's because the size of the photosites is large enough to fill the well up at ISO 200. A lot of Nikon bodies have a minimum ISO of 200 including the D1, D1H, D2H, D2Hs, D100, D70, D70s, and D50.

To shoot at f/16 David would have to either reduce power on the flash and sync at 1/250 sec or use an ND filter.


October 01, 2006 10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am learning so much from your site that my head is spinning. One thing I do not understand is why you use manual rather than ettl with compensation. Can you explain? Also, I have no reference point for manual flash. How do I know where to start to balance it to the camera exposure? Thanks.

December 04, 2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger David said...


I find shooting on eTTL to be rather like driving a train. Work you way through the Lighting 101 section, and you will know enough to be dangerous.

December 04, 2006 4:17 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

I've been reading all your posts. It would be nice if you can also post a behind the scenes shot (a photo of you, subject, and remote flash)

Other than that, been loving all your great tips!

March 30, 2007 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Andreas Wening said...

Hi David,
love your site, great tips. With much interest I read this article since I run in almost the same situation. In my case it's a group of about 12 couples (24 persons), the men wearing a hat with a sun shade. I have to take the picture outside and most of the time at 11 am in harsh sunlight. This will cause havy shadows on the faces (from the sun shade) and around the neck from the chin. If I set the camera to a higher shutter speed (e.g. 1/125) and smaller aparture (e.g. f11 instead of 5.6) I may be able to light the group but the background will be completely dark. I guess your shot worked because it was a single person and your flash was able to light the person and the wall. Is this correct? Is there anything I can do for a group shot outside (with trees in the background) in harsh sunlight? Any help would be very appreciated.
Thanks, Andreas (wening@gmx.de)

May 18, 2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I'm confused about two lines that appear to contradict.

In one paragraph you say; Doesn't matter if the sun cannot get up under the guy's brow. Just make sure your flash is able to get up under there and light his eyes.

Then a moment later while discussing settings and position you say; (Make sure the flash is high enough to look good on him, but not too high to get up under his brow.)

Can you explain this differently?


May 25, 2007 5:53 PM  
Blogger Rob Oresteen said...

What about a diffuser panel stopping down the sun and a reflector on the opposite side for fill?

I say this as a pure question because I have done neither technique - yours or the one I mentioned.

Of course, hauling around panels goes against the grain of traveling light though.

January 27, 2008 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Excellent and thank you. Your lighting information is much better than ANY book I've ever seen on the subject. (Now there's an idea - put it all together in a book. I'm sure it would sell like hot cakes !!

April 02, 2008 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I shoot baseball portraits with this kind of harsh light. I generally use this technique (with a few variations to adjust for the light. My shoot is all day long so I have to make constant adjustments). The only problem that I have, however, is that the sb-800 gives a muddy, greasy look in my subjects face. How do you avoid that to keep the definition?

May 18, 2008 7:26 PM  
Blogger Fashion Photographer London said...

Thanks for sharing your expertise, so many people are really uptight about sharing their knowledge. It's refreshing that you are so open. Thanks!

November 15, 2008 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THANK YOU!! FINALLY, a photographer willing to share the exact details of how to do something to us novice bugs who need the info. Thank you thank you thank you!! Keep 'em coming!!!

December 18, 2008 1:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i find myself in this situation often, and it would be a big help if the dslr's could get down to at last iso 25. the big banana is to get to iso 300,000+, but hey gimme something way slower please.

December 30, 2008 7:04 PM  
Blogger melassey said...

thanks for this!
my issue is that sometimes I am stuck with more mobile clients (like 3 year olds that are running all over the place). I can't practically set up my flash correctly because he/ she is running all over and changing the direction of their face so often. i find it so frustrating sometimes...

May 17, 2010 10:44 AM  

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