Lighting 102: 3.2 - Balance | Flash/Sun Crosslighting

UPDATE: Some of you guys are already all over this one. There's a good discussion thread forming already, so there should be plenty of help for the newbs. Please ask technique questions in the Flickr threads rather than the comments.

Last week we talked about creating great light with just one flash and a sunset. (Results here.) But what about those photos which can't be scheduled for the evening?

This week I want to get into the idea of balancing and crosslighting sunlight, and take a look at a Strobist reader who is using this one technique as a calling card. (More after the jump.)

Before we learn how to tame the harsh sunlight, let's take a look at what TTL, on-camera fill flash does so we can have a basic understanding of the concept to better understand how we can expand it. I have nothing against TTL, mind you. There are situations for which it is clearly the best solution. But I cringe at the thought of all of that technology being brought to bear on what turns out to be a boring photo because the light was coming from on-axis.

You have seen the photo before, in the back of your camera or flash manual. It's usually a very nonthreateningly beautiful female Japanese model, posing by a railing with a background of, say a nice lake or harbor scene and perhaps a sailboat or two. The before-and-after photos show the ugly, raccoon-eyes look of the model in harsh sunlight and the improved-but-still-sterile TTL-Matrix-Balanced-Computer-Assisted-Patented-Photographer-Brain-Softening fill light.

Raccoon eyes are the problem, and the pat solution is to pop just enough light in there to fill them. The camera calculates the basic, ambient exposure and pops in a little fill at, say, 1.7 stops down. It fills the harsh shadows and leaves that little "fill flash twinkle" in the eyes.

But geez Louise, with harsh sun and one flash you can do so much better. I mean, even keeping the flash hard (no umbrella) you can get some very cool looks by going off camera. And you only have three decisions to make:

1. At what angle do you want your strobe light and sunlight to hit your subject?

2. How bright to you want to set your ambient?

3. How bright do you want to set your flash?

Boy, that there's some real rocket science right? No, it's not. It a simple series of choices that can leave you with some super cool-looking mid-day photos. Let's run through the thought process and take a look at some of the results you can get.

Taming the Sun

Here's the basic setup. (Like those new, high-impact, 3-D graphics? Yeah, baby...) Click the pic for a bigger view.

It's good to start with the sun coming from behind your subject, out of the frame, on the back/right or back/left side. You'll be throwing hard sunlight against hard strobe light, so lighting-wise you do not care which is coming from where. But your subject would probably rather not look right into the sun.

(The choice to go back right or back left is going to be made by which background you prefer, given the differing sun positions.)

Immediately, you will want to go to your max synch speed, giving you the most open aperture possible and allowing your flash to do the most work with the least output. (This is where having a 500th of a sec synch -- or higher -- at your disposal pays real dividends.) But 1/250th will work fine, too. Below that, it starts getting tougher.

We'll be playing with the ambient in a bit, but for right now let's just grab a decent background exposure and go with it. Remember, you're at your synch speed, so you will do this with the aperture on manual.

This is not some compromise, namby-pamby, mama's boy, try-to-keep-everything-in-range exposure, either. Expose for the sky and environment and let your subject's foreground exposure fall where it may. Make the environment look good. You'll be fixing the foreground in a minute.

This is also the background/separation light for your subject. So do pay a little attention to how that light looks skimming off of your subject, too. You'll be surprised at how good that back/rim looks coming of of the sun side of your subject when you do not have to worry about the shadows in the foreground.

Now, bring your flash in from the opposite side (a little high and at about a 45-degree angle to start) and set it on, say, 1/2 power, with no light mods attached. (You do not have enough power for an umbrella unless you are in very close or you are rocking some serious watt-seconds.) You can warm it with a gel a little if you want. Maybe a 1/4 CTO.

I would start with my flash at about six feet away, on 1/2 power. Pop a frame and chimp. Too dark on the flash-lit side? Move your light in. Too light? Drop it to 1/4 power to get some faster recycle time for a better shooting rhythm. When you balance it right, it'll look like this:

Now, seriously, does this not look better than anything an on-camera fill flash could accomplish? This is by New Zealand shooter Brent Williamson, who uses this light all of the time and does not even appear to own a proper light stand.

It's not an equipment thing. It's a brain thing.

Of course, synch-wise, Nikon and Canon do the wireless thing very well at close range. And this is a situation where your synch connection is gonna be pretty much bullet proof. So definitely use this as a way to amp those family pix if you are so-equipped. You do not even need a stand, either -- just a bystander to hold the flash and point at your subjects.

Here's a setup shot of a different lighting angle situation, also by Brent, which shows the flash acting as more of a backlight. He is crosslighting almost on the 90's (flash a little behind) but the idea is the same. Looks so obvious when the light is in the photo, but click through on the photo and cover the flash/tripod with your hand and see the lighting look without the setup context. Cool huh?

Exposure-wise, your flash has to be pretty close to correct. But you have a half-stop range either way, so don't get too anal retentive about it. Also, after you nail the exposure, move the strobe around a little to find the best lighting angle/height to make your subject look the way you want.

But the exposure on the ambient/background -- that's another story.

Take a look at this third shot by Brent, which is clearly underexposing the background a little. Totally different feel. To get this, you are going to underexpose the background by staying a the synch speed and closing down the aperture -- and cranking up and/or moving in the flash to compensate or the tighter aperture.

It looks so 3-D because the sun and the flash are painting the subject from opposite sides, and you can play with the ambient exposure to let your subject pop as much as you want.

The flash exposure still needs to be on target, but play a little with the ambient portion. It's the concept of straight crosslighting (instead of straight, on-camera fill) that gives you the look. As long as you shoot on the 3/4 (or 1/4) angles to the lights, you are gonna get a really nice, 3-D effect with this light. The ambient light level, which defines the feel of the photo, is up to you.

No assignment this week as we still have several different light balancing approaches to discuss. But as an exercise, you should get out and try this. It's a way-cool look that anyone with a single, off-camera light can get.

Tag your assignments as:


You can view the completed exercises of others, here. There is a discussion thread set up for this post here.


Related posts:

:: OA: Archeologists ::
:: OA: Taming Harsh Sunlight ::

See also:

: Brent Williamson's Website ::

NEXT: Balancing Flash and Ambient


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Blogger Jan Klier said...

This may be a minor point in defense of TTL - Canon Speedlights support multi-flash TTL. Instead of setting each flash power manually, you can adjust the ratio between the on-camera flash and the off-camera flash.

Not necessarily suited for the type of cross-light discussed here, but it can come in handy when pressed for time.

September 13, 2007 12:05 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Argh! I have to try this one AND the last assignment. They're both something I have limited experience with. Gotta practice. =)

September 13, 2007 1:56 AM  
Blogger dean burton said...

I posted this picture right away because I had it already and wanted feedback:
initial comments were that background was too bright.
without being defensive here... this photo looks realistic to me (although i'd like some more highlight detail). I live in the Western US and the light here is really harsh. I know because I grew up in New England. East light is very different from West light.
Compare Rochester, NY with Tucson, AZ.
When I moved to AZ this was pointed out to me...
However, i find the biggest problem in shooting in the harsh sunlight is the evaluation of the image...AKA "chimping". very hard to do in this harsh light.
When I made the picture posted the first thing I could think was that I want a tent.

September 13, 2007 2:19 AM  
Blogger joggle said...

Something went wrong with css in firefox. I get a mess with the pictures when printing. IE is ok.

September 13, 2007 2:47 AM  
Blogger Phil said...


You mention that sync speeds of 1/250 and below will make it tougher, in what way?

Grrr canon, wish Id gone down the nikon route you guys seem to get more for your money and even pay less!

September 13, 2007 3:25 AM  
Blogger chadw said...

I've seen Brent's stuff in the group before and I like it a lot. I was thinking of trying it myself and in the process thought that I'd use a tripod to hold the flash instead of my "proper light stands".

I've been a little paranoid about using my flashes outside because it's often windy enough to topple them over. A decent tripod that's heavy enough (think Manfrotto/Bogen/Slik/etc...) is a much better option for outside though. It would take a good bit of wind to knock over my tripod with a bare flash (no umbrella).

I know it's a simple idea, but sometimes I can't see the forest for the trees.

September 13, 2007 6:11 AM  
Blogger Nicholaus Haskins said...

Super exciting stuff!

September 13, 2007 6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should this be listed as 3.2?

September 13, 2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Nit: Post version number should be 3.2?

September 13, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

Actually, Canon and Nikon both do that pretty well. The problem I've had is that sometimes, in bright sun, with the flash behind the camera, it doesn't trigger from CLS. At least not with a pop-up as the commander. With an SU-800 (Nikon's version) or other controller, that problem may be lessened. But this has been discussed a fair amount...

September 13, 2007 8:52 AM  
Blogger schmee said...

what about letting the flash control exposure automatically using a built in thyristor. it wouldn't get confused the way ttl might and the exposure checking is from the perspective of the flash head? i haven't tried this, but in theory it should work pretty well shouldn't it?

September 13, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Scheuern said...

A max sync speed below 1/250 makes it tougher because you'll have a more limited range of apertures to play with and, in particular, underexposing the ambient light will be more difficult in bright conditions.

If, for example, you're shooting at ISO 100 on a sunny day and your maximum sync speed is 1/125, you're pretty much limited to f/16-f/22 for your aperture range. It's even worse if your minimum ISO is 200.

September 13, 2007 10:19 AM  
Blogger captaindash said...

I have a Pentax with a dismal 1/180 sync speed. Can I crank up my flash power and use an nd filter to give me more control over the ambient?

September 13, 2007 10:40 AM  
Blogger Jacob said...

I've been working with this a LOT lately - I wish I had photos posted in my flickr stream which show some of my trials. I'll try to get some posted in the next few days in the strobist group.

My biggest problem when I started doing this was finding a nice happy medium blanace, where you can't really tell that your subjects are being lit by flash (I was shooting family portraits, and *trying* to use an umbrella to soften the light a bit, with two strobes mounted in the umbrella). I would end up with red faces a lot - not sure why, but I would. (David, any thoughts on this)? That, and my subjects LOOKED strobed, which wasn't quite what I was going for. I finally convinced my understanding wife to come outside with me, and I shot a slew of images, changing the flash power 1/8 at a time (and keeping track of each image setting) so I could study the effects later. I think it helped a lot.

Anyway - I'm getting long winded here. My experience with this is that it's harder than it looks to make it look good. And as David has pointed out, Brent has done a VERY nice job.

September 13, 2007 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil, if it makes you feel any better... I think Brent shot those pics with Canon equipment... a 5D.

I'm curious to know what lens he's using... I think those shots work best at wide angles. The added "perspective" makes it look more 3D.

September 13, 2007 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a Nikon D80 with max sync speed of 1/200 and wonder also if ND filters would help, or is it just the ratio of ambient to flash and since the ND cuts both that it won't help any?

September 13, 2007 12:09 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


We would like to do an interview with you about your blog for . We'd like to give you the opportunity to
give us some insight on the "person behind the blog."

It would just take a few minutes of your time. The interview form can
be submitted online at

Best regards,

Mike Thomas

September 13, 2007 12:09 PM  
Anonymous tpuerzer said...


I was looking at some of your past lighting diagram, and I've gotta say, your drawings of the people in your diagrams are REALLY improving.

I especially LOVE what you did with the two little eyes on the subject in this diagram - they are SO expressive! I feel like I can get a real sense of WHO the subject is and what they are feeling.

I think your new-found technique really adds that certain... gee, I don't know what to call it... "flair" perhaps... to the entire diagram.

Keep up the good work!

I can't wait for you next lighting diagram!


September 13, 2007 12:17 PM  
Anonymous Felix said...

I know we are in a *strobe* group...but how about reflectors? They require no power and synch at any speed!. If you have an assistant, let the sun shine from the back right and use a reflector from say camera left. You will also get catchlights and a nice soft frontal light (or harder, if you use a hard silver reflector...

September 13, 2007 1:08 PM  
Blogger nicknackpattywack said...

Question: What should the ratio of direct sunlight to flash be?

I's an artistic choice, but is there a good ratio that you should aim for, and work from there? What ratio do you typically go for/recommend?*

I guess I'm also referring more to flash/direct-sunlight-highlights ratio, rather then the flash/entire-background ratio.

* I don't plan on just copying the ratio (well, I am, but...) - I want to be able to duplicate the technique, and make sure I'm getting it right before I start adding my own touches to it.



September 13, 2007 1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, are you saying if you want to handhold you control the ambient with f/stop? How do you get dof with f2.8? (widest aperture). If it is on a tripod, cna't you control the ambient with shutter speed? I'm thinking of this shot done at 1/25

September 13, 2007 2:27 PM  
Blogger kentphotographer said...

I have a canon 5d with a 580ex. If I set the speed to 1/250 a bottom portion of my picture goes black. I maybe missing something but would like suggestions.

September 13, 2007 4:45 PM  
Blogger BWard said...

In reply to chadw, who said, "I've been a little paranoid about using my flashes outside because it's often windy enough to topple them over. A decent tripod that's heavy enough (think Manfrotto/Bogen/Slik/etc...) is a much better option for outside though. It would take a good bit of wind to knock over my tripod with a bare flash (no umbrella)."

>>> Check out these counterweights - certainly there is a more strobist (aka cheap/DIY) solution, but these do work to weigh down the lightstands (though it does not seem to help w/ umbrellas, which like to go parasailing in the slightest bit of wind whenever I have my exposure / strobe position right outside).*&bhs=t

September 13, 2007 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Brent Williamson said...

haha - you can't kill my webhost this time David - I moved my images off the server onto your own laptop by osmosis ...... feel the buuuurn!!

A couple of answers to some questions above: I do use the Canon 5D
My lens (the only one I own) is the 24-70 f2.8

At 1/250 you get the dark line because of the shutter closing I believe - you can actually overcome that somewhat by having the ambient light being the key light - but you're better off at 1/200 on the 5D with off camera flash use....
NickNack, you answered your own question, do what you feel looks right, As far as I'm aware, there is no 'golden ratio', but in case there is, I'm going to have to go ahead and copyright the words "golden" and "ratio" and the numbers "6:4.983".......

And sure Mike, I'd love to be interviewed..... I'll pop right in ......oh, you mean David.....oh ok, maybe next time......

And David - you're buying the beers when you get down here.

September 13, 2007 8:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

What? What??

I was nice... All thie pix were served by Flickr... I did not link to your actual site in the comments...

Just one teensy, weensy "related link" at the bottom. Heck no one even gets to the bottom of these long-winded posts...

Maybe I'll buy you an watered-down American beer, tho.

Or, on next April Fool's, I should say "click here for the really big version" and let your site serve the pic?


September 13, 2007 9:04 PM  
Blogger COFPhoto said...

This is exactly the same technique that I use when shooting photos in direct sun at the beach. However I take it one step further.

I was ending up at about F8.0 which left something to be desired with regards to DOF. So I occasionally screw on a two stop ND filter, which allows me to get to F4.0. It usually requires that I have my 580EX at full power, and pretty close to my subject, but it works great.

This is a great article, I'm going to post a link to it on my photography forum. Thanks!

September 13, 2007 11:11 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Ah right, gotcha.

Im using the 5d and Ill lower the ASA to 50 and I have noticed it does sync at 1/200 with the pulsars (middle class mans pocket wizard), this should allow me to use f11 instead of f16-22.

Hmm, better get out this weekend and play.

September 14, 2007 8:55 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Anonymous. I don't think you would ever want to shoot this type of photo at f2.8 for a few reasons. 1) if you are using bare flash and you're out in bright midday sun, there will be way to much light spilling in at such a wide aperture.
2) You are trying to create a 3D sort of effect. So by blurring the background using a shallow DOF, you blur the gorgeous blue skies, fluffy white clouds and bright green grass in the background. So it seems very counterproductive to shoot wide open.

September 14, 2007 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual my question was not answered....why am I even here?

So, are you saying if you want to handhold you control the ambient with f/stop? How do you get dof with f2.8? (widest aperture). If it is on a tripod, cna't you control the ambient with shutter speed? I'm thinking of this shot done at 1/25

September 14, 2007 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


There is a very good discussion - with lots of Q's and A's - that you are missing by not asking your question in the dicussion thread that was linked at least twice in the main post.

It would make much more sense for you to ask your questions there, rather than in this comments thread...

September 14, 2007 4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps if you had the courage to post as yourself and not anonymous, you would get more help!

September 14, 2007 10:45 PM  
Blogger Maik Dobiey said...

my first comment on this really great blog...
I am about a year late but still:

I agree with most of the above written, but you imply that TTL-lighting is automatically on-camera which is not the case. There are IR-trigger systems like Nikon's CLS that allows you to remotely trigger your flashes in TTL. Also you can use cords if you are shooting Canon or don't trust the CLS.
Another thing is that you recommend to use the shortest shutter speed for obvious reasons but you would still use the manual-mode instead of using the high-speed synchronisation most cameras have optional in aperture-priority-mode. Latter can make life way easier using flash outdoors as you can open your aperture more. You can still balance the ambient with over/underexposing the TTL-metering of your camera which works fine in most situations. If you are not using the flash in manual but TTL just make sure to dial up the flash power to compensate the underexposure. For example set the camera on -0.7 and the flash on +0.7.
I hope this makes sence as my english is not perfect.

Best wishes,


May 17, 2008 12:00 AM  
OpenID kaeframes said...

I would say Highspeed sync is the Answer to play around with yr shutterspeed, but don`t go to small with yr aperture, f5.6 or f4. FP-Sync is a great thing on sunny days, works just fine. But theres alway a but in photography...yr battery life will drop down pretty quick.

June 10, 2010 6:15 AM  

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