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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Free, Custom Backdrops Delivered Daily: How to Shoot Flash Into a Sunset

Pop Quiz: Within a five-minute margin of error, how many people here know when the sun is going to set in your town tomorrow?

If you don't know that information, you should. You should also know roughly where the sun will set. The sunset's apparent location changes throughout the year - probably more than you think. The time changes all year, too. I make it a point to check the paper once a week or so, to keep the time trend line stuck in my brain.

Along with those two tidbits, knowing a couple of accessible shooting locations that will give you a nice view of the sunset is handy, too.

Why? Because any day of the year, you have a easy photo shoot just waiting in your pocket. Knowing how to do this is a bread-and-butter skill for any aspiring flasher, so we are going to go through it step by step. Hey, no one ever accused me of being too brief.

The best locations are the tops of hills which give you a view of the sky in the east and the west. Why? Because you are going to shoot a very good fall-back portrait just before the sun goes down at all. Then, just 20 minutes later, you are going to knock it right off of the page with a better version.

Here's the scoop.

Having your pre-arranged location and time ready, you plan to meet your subject about 20 minutes before sunset. Tell them to expect to take about an hour. Assuming your subject is punctual, they are going to arrive just in time to shoot a nice, easy golden light (and "available" light, at that) portrait. One hour, one location, two very good (and totally different) looks.

In this example, I was shooting a portrait of some family friends on Monday as a small thank you for the "totally wicked" clothes (that's my seven-year-old girl's extremely positive term) that they passed down to her. Seems that their Sarah (that's her in the photo) who is a couple of years older than my Emily, has "like, the totally coolest" taste in clothing. She's practically her own designer label for my daughter now.

As an aside to the aside, please try to get in the habit of shooting nice photos of your friends whenever possible. Use light. It's great practice for you, wonderful pictures for them and it's darn near free. It's all ones and zeroes - just shoot them on digital and burn them a disc. You can output photos at a drug store for pennies a print now. It's good karma, and you learn in a no-pressure environment.

Back to the pictures.

So, you shoot the easy, golden light available light stuff. It's low, warm and beautiful. Most people would be happy to turn it in, but you have moved on to the next level now. So this is your fallback in case the good stuff goes wrong.

Available light stuff shot, you relax and watch the sunset. I have heard that there is similarly good light to be had each morning. But I would not know about that, as it happens long before I wake up.

When the sun drops below the horizon, it's back to work for you. Choose your background angle (uh, think "west") and your camera position. You will probably want to shoot from a low angle to exploit the afterglow.

Set up your main light, probably off to one side at ~45 degrees and up a little. Umbrellas or softboxes work well for this one, although you can hard light (or snoot) it, too. Let your subject matter and desired effect guide you.

If you are using a second light, set it up, too. I usually like to cross light with the main, with a hard light source dialed way down. Do not forget to gobo the back/side light to control glare.

From here on out, the sequence and exposures are designed to maximize your shooting time. This is not the only way to do it, but I like to work this way to squeeze out about 20 minutes of shooting time.

First, set your ASA to the lowest limit, and set your shutter to your maximum synch speed. Now set your front light to full power. This will let you get started as soon as possible. The back (cross) strobe light, if used, will be dialed down quite a bit. And for the sake of simplicity, I am going to proceed as if we are just using a front light. If you can do one, you can do two. But start with one.

OK, your shutter speed is on max synch. Synch up the flash - off camera, Bucko - and do a test shot of your hand at what will be your subject's position. Shoot it with the flash at full flash power. If you are using a small flash and diffusing it with an umbrella or whatever, you will still need to be pretty close to your light. Adjust your aperture and test to find out what the correct aperture will be for a full power flash. The background will be overexposed at this point. No problem.

Let's say ends up being f/5.6, just for argument. So now you have a shutter speed and an aperture. When the exposure for the afterglow drops to that exposure, you can begin shooting. The light will not last very long, so you'll want to milk it for all of the time you can get.

NOTE: There will still be enough light when your shooting window opens to easily focus on your subject. But it will drop pretty quickly, and you can extend your shooting time by bringing a flashlight to aim at your subject periodically to aid focusing. Good for finding gear after dark, too. Just a thought.


Once your shooting window opens, your ambient light will change pretty quickly. And you have a couple of options on dealing with it. First, you can simply open up your shutter speed to balance the ambient as it dims. Remember to vary your shutter speed when shooting, too. There is no "right" exposure. Moving the shutter speed will over- or under-expose the background. Airy, normal or dramatic. It's personal choice and all available to you moment to moment.

If you have an external high voltage battery pack, long recycle times will not be an issue. But if you are running AA's, you will want to drop to half (maybe even quarter) power on the flash as soon as the ambient light level will let you. It sounds like a complicated dance, but it is very intuitive with the TFT screen on the back. I easily shot four individual people and then the group of four in about a ten-minute window.

You may wish to practice one evening with hard light, as it will be stronger and give you a longer shooting window. The first or second time you do this, you will probably find yourself bogged down by trying to remember the details as the light changes. But keep at it - it gets smooth and effortless with practice. And the ability to do this any evening is a valuable skill.

As the light drops, power your flash down (on manual, of course) until you get to your lowest practical working aperture. Then you will start lowering your shutter speeds as the light drops further. Move the camera during the exposure. Experiment with subject movement. You will already have some good stuff in the can, so use the last part of the light to stretch for something really cool. I have made some nice shots at one-second (and longer) exposures on sunset shoots.

Just remember the shutter will affect the background. The aperture will affect background and the subject. Adjusting the flash's output will affect just the subject. Raising the ASA a little will buy you a few more minutes of shooting. Total control at your fingertips. Go wild.

Save a little bit of light to collect gear by. Or bring a flashlight. No sense in leaving some passerby a free lens the next day, right?

Kids, athletes, businessmen - whatever. Just about anyone looks good against a sunset's afterglow. Just stick a little shoe-mount flash off to the side and they'll look like a Fortune Magazine cover.

And the custom-made, one of a kind backdrops are totally free.

Next: Ant Upton: Soccer Preview Shot


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27 Comments:

Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

Really inspiring article. Thanks!

I noticed that you shot this with a D200. Have you tried the Auto ISO feature? I think it does about what you described with the ISO setting.

June 02, 2006 1:03 AM  
Anonymous Pete Millson said...

This is really exciting isn't it. I'm a photographer for a living but this blog is reminding me what a magical thing a camera is - not forgetting the magic of a speedlight in a brolly with a slow shutter making you look a genius!

Keep it coming David - no sleep for you.

PETE.

June 02, 2006 4:52 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

You are truly awesome! This site is sooo much better that 95% of the stuff out there. I love it! You are really giving out some GREAT information along with an in depth look at how you did it. Thank you and keep it up!!!

June 02, 2006 6:31 AM  
Anonymous Chad Worthman said...

I see you're using the SB-800's, but still going manual with Pocket Wizards. Have you tried the wireless feautres yet?

June 02, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger David said...

I have been playing with the CLS wireless system, but am still using my PW's an manual. I have two SB-800's now, and am planning a comparative article on the CLS setup vs older SB's and PW's.

They both have their advantages, and are close to the same price when it comes to sticking a receiver on an individual SB-24, for instance.

That'll go up sometime soon. And yes, I did play with the auto ASA stuff. But sunset is a tight window in which to experiment. Still on training wheels with CLS.

June 02, 2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger Mike Chen said...

If you have a Pocket PC device, here is a free program to track sunrises and sunsets:

http://home.comcast.net/~jonsachs/#Ephemeris%201.0

June 02, 2006 8:50 AM  
Anonymous Chad Worthman said...

Also, thanks for the article David. This week I moved to a house which is literally a stones throw away from the Atlantic ocean, with a westerly view. I'll be trying this technique many times over the summer/fall. I'll post my results to the flickr group.

June 02, 2006 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

David,
Did you gel either flash? It looks like you warmed the main light, but left the fill alone. Am I missing something or did I reverse engineer that correctly?

June 02, 2006 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Alan Ackoff said...

David,

Thanks for another great lesson. I was bouncing off of walls before I found your website... now I'm bouncing my small strobes off of walls.

A couple of quick questions:
1. Are you shooting raw files or JPEGs?
2. On the sunset shot, how are you white balancing?

Alan Ackoff

June 02, 2006 10:15 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the SB-800's and D200. I have a D200 on order (there's a serious backlog in Australia at the moment) and am thinking about giving my SB-800 a brother or sister (SB-600!)..

I've been telling my colleagues for about a year now that you can achieve a hell of a lot more than they think with these little wonders! Now you're proving it for me, thanks!

June 02, 2006 11:31 AM  
Blogger Tim Vacula said...

I live by my Palm, and like Mike Chen's suggestion, I have had the program SunAngle on it for years. It gives me sunrise/sunset times for any location, a graphical representation of the sun's height above the horizon and a chart showing what direction the sun will rise/set. I use it all the time for this purpose, just not as effectively as you did!

http://home.znet.com/gregbell5/

June 02, 2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Making Photos said...

Passing along your knowledge is a wonderful gift. This site is one of the most educational sites out there and you’ve done an admirable thing in educating photographers, young and old, on lighting techniques that can be used by the pro and amateur alike. It’s a bookmarked site for me and you are on the blog roll on my site (not that it will drive traffic:}). Keep up the knowledge sharing. It makes the web a better palce.

Making Photos
http://haydenphotos.blogspot.com/

June 02, 2006 12:41 PM  
Blogger Making Photos said...

Passing along your knowledge is a wonderful gift. This site is one of the most educational sites out there and you’ve done an admirable thing in educating photographers, young and old, on lighting techniques that can be used by the pro and amateur alike. It’s a bookmarked site for me and you are on the blog roll on my site (not that it will drive traffic:}). Keep up the knowledge sharing. It makes the web a better palce.

Making Photos
http://haydenphotos.blogspot.com/

June 02, 2006 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

If you're liking the idea of CLS one thing to consider is using SB-600 speedlights. They are much cheaper (about $170 US with the current rebate) than the SB-800 lights and the major difference is the lack of ability to function as a commander. What you do instead is to get an SU-800 which is a commander only unit (for about $250 US) or a single SB-800 (about $320 US) depending on whether or not you think the light part is worth it.

The D200 does support the commander mode with its on-board flash, but access to the controls is a bit awkward (they are buried in the menu system), so a lot of the easy control of CLS is lost.

June 02, 2006 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Captoe said...

I was 15 minutes early with my sunset estimate.

I'll post my "homework" over at flickr. Learned a bunch trying to emulate that shot.

June 03, 2006 2:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the others this site is great and much, much better than 90 percent other websites for photography. Yours truly provides the nuts and bolts to improve photography skills and provides valuable knowledge. i am curious that you used SB 800 yet you didn't used their built in wireless to trigger them. Any how keep up the Great work!! I look forward to your site always.

June 03, 2006 6:38 AM  
Blogger David said...

More answers to Q's:

Jeff: I keep a Rosco 08 warming gel permanently on the flash I use for my main (usually frontal) light. Just makes things look better.

Alan: Jpegs, balanced for daylight - which makes my warmed flash look sweet. I let the ambient sunset colors fall where they may.

Making (et al): Thanks much for the thanks.

Anonymous: Thanks, man. Now, I'll working on burying the other 10%. As for the PW/Nikon wireless question, the CLS stuff works well at close range, but PW's are the Gold Standard for remote triggering. And I was using the flash in manual anyway.

June 03, 2006 5:08 PM  
Blogger michael matlach said...

Great site and very useful article.

I am a travel photographer and I use some form of lighting on most of my portraits, Lighting is so important It's good to see a site that is about lighting!

Please check out my site!
www.michaelmatlach.com

June 04, 2006 9:42 PM  
Anonymous Roger Mattingly said...

Images are coming up only as question mark
am using safari what give? Like the site. It takes
me back to my pj days.

June 05, 2006 4:22 PM  
Blogger Craig W. Thompson said...

Great, great site. I have struggled with flash for years. This site has help tremendously. Thanks.

June 22, 2006 11:23 PM  
Anonymous TC! said...

If you're on a mac then try the sol dashboard widget for sunrise/sunset:
http://www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/information/sol.html

P.S. thanks for all the amazing information. If you ever post info on shooting rally cars with strobes I'll be over the moon.

August 16, 2006 2:53 PM  
Anonymous AJ said...

it looks like your flash/brolly light is a warmer light temp. than the direct flash to the right. Have you used some gel or other such thing ... or is it just the afterglow?

April 12, 2007 8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The D200 does support the commander mode with its on-board flash, but access to the controls is a bit awkward (they are buried in the menu system), so a lot of the easy control of CLS is lost."

I own a D80 which lets you create a custom "My Menu" with only those functions you want access to. I have the Custom Functions boiled down to a single page, among which are the flash controls, so it is very quick to access the Commander settings to adjust remote flash output. Works great. I can only assume the D200 has the same My Menu functionality.

June 20, 2007 12:17 AM  
Anonymous wjaz said...

Do you think that it would be useful to gel the flash blue or cyan and set the white balance accordingly for a more orange/red background?

I can imagine the ambient light being a problem, but I guess it would be worth trying.

March 03, 2008 8:27 AM  
Blogger siranthonyjames said...

"Just remember the shutter will affect the background. The aperture will affect background and the subject. Adjusting the flash's output will affect just the subject. Raising the ASA a little will buy you a few more minutes of shooting. Total control at your fingertips. Go wild."

mantra.


David Hobby,
you just became a prophet.:)

November 09, 2009 4:38 PM  
Blogger AjFilGud said...

Old article but very useful even today.

Thank you

August 02, 2010 4:37 PM  
Blogger wraith said...

Ok, so I'm a little late to this game... but since 2006 there are much better ways to find the Golden Hour without guessing or being tied to your PC. Apps like "Magic Hour" for iOS and probably countless others for all smartphones will give you the exact time of sunset/twilight and those golden colors whatever your current lat/long is!

January 05, 2013 9:59 PM  

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