First Time in the US: Gulf Photo Plus is Coming to Seattle.

On Assignment: Soccer Through Sunset

Any time I am shooting an outside portrait and the start time is up to me, I am for an hour before sunset. The reason is simple: You know the light is gonna just get better and better until it is time to wrap it up.

That's exactly how it was with a shoot last week of local soccer standout Zach Johnson. But this time we veered away from the normal afternoon/sunset game plan a little.

Normally, I like to start with late afternoon sun as my key, because the light just keeps getting sweeter as it morphs into that final ten minutes of magical golden hues. And afterward, the post sunset light stays soft and directional until the sky becomes a perfect backdrop for off-camera flash.

Shooting both a head shot and action photos, we switched things up a little this time. We shot into the afternoon sun, then used golden light for action shots before setting up a few strobes to mimic nighttime stadium lighting at the end.

Shooting directly into late afternoon sun can wreak havoc on your exposure. The range of tones is pretty extreme. Turn your camera just a smidge into or away from the sun and your ambient exposure can move several stops.

So I like to use a wide aperture and work with the sun right outside of my frame. This creates a beautiful palette of soft light, with your subject sillo'd in the front. And the sun becomes a gorgeous rim light. The shot above was at f/2.5, so you could do it with just about any portrait-length lens.

Step By Step

To flash into that sun at a wide aperture, you'll need to use either high-speed sync or a neutral density filter. I'm not a big fan of high-speed sync because (a) it robs your power, and (b) you have to pay for the capability on every new light you buy.

With ND, you pay up for a hi-quality filter once and you can use it for every flash, every lens, every platform. Don't skimp on glass here. And while flashing into backlight with an ND filter is pretty straightforward, there are a few steps involved.

First, drop your camera to a low ISO. Light quantity is not gonna be your problem here, so you may as well get the image quality while you control your ambient level. I like to go to the native ISO of my camera, which is 100. Next, go to your max hard sync speed to bleed even more of that ambient out.

Now, close down your aperture to create the desired exposure for your background and watch all of that creaminess disappear. In it's place, you get to see every single spec of sensor dust. Enjoy.

This background exposure level is what you will balance your subject to, with flash. Bring your light in nice and close. You are shooting tight to keep that creamy out-of-focus background in the final image.

Position your light and adjust your power level until your subject balances with the background. Now, you are ready for your ND filter. There are several ways to ND a lens, but I love the Singh-Ray Vari-ND for its great optical quality and stepless range of densities.

As you dial in neutral density in front of the lens, you can take out the stops via the aperture to make up the difference. Go all the way to wide open if you like.

The important thing to remember, is you are still keeping that same 1/250th ~ f/16-ish relationship between strobe and sun. But you are bleeding away the aperture (and depth of field) with the ND filter.

That's why you need power, which is exactly what proprietary high-speed sync systems rob you of. Cough up for one good ND filter and you can do this setup with any flash.

What you are left with is a sharp, lit subject and a very atypical (for flash) out-of-focus backdrop. It evokes a larger film format to me, mostly because larger camera give a look with less depth of field.

For this headshot, my key light was a Profoto B600, in an FTX white beauty dish. The dish was in very close -- maybe two feet away -- which helped me two ways.

One, the light got really soft because of the apparent size of the light source. Two, the close range made things very efficient. My white dish is not the most efficient mod in the world. But at this range I was able to balance what had been f/16 (before the ND) with about 100 watt-seconds of power.

So there is only one flash being used. Shadows were filled from a Tri-Grip flexible reflector held underneath.

Instead of shooting more headshots with the golden light as key, we decided to use that for some running shots. I had Zach move down the field, and told him to treat each streak of golden light coming through the trees as a defender. That way I knew he'd be making lateral moves every time he broke into an area of nice light.

Normally when I shoot sports, this happens exactly the opposite way. Nice to be in control for a change.

We used the last bit of golden light on action shots, then used the post-sunset afterglow period to set up a trio of flashes for a motion shot with a little more cowbell.

For the post-sunset shot, I wanted to do something that mimicked stadium light. The field was surrounded by trees, so the horizon wasn't the greatest. But we decided to go for it anyway.

We used the stadium light to motivate the key, meaning that we wanted the key to appear to be coming from the stadium lights. Or at least close enough for your brain to fill in the dots.

So that light was the B600 again, about 40 feet away and on very low power with a hard reflector.

That gave us Zach's face. But we still needed some detail up front. So I stuck a slaved SB-800 on the ground right next to my camera and dialed it way down. I just wanted a little legibility in the shadows on Zach.

Finally, we needed some kind of separation light coming from back camera right. The trees were pretty grody back there and of course he is wearing black shoes. So another slaved SB-800 on a stand was tasked for that. Perfectly logical, too, as you would expect another set of stadium lights off to the right.

No ND filters here. We needed all of the aperture could get, to be able to zone focus as he drove through the shooting area. As the ambient kept getting darker and darker, I kept panning right to left as Zach came through. This minimized the damages of shooing fast action at a 1/250th of a second. (Works at lower shutter speeds, too.)

Zach's a pretty intense guy -- as is his younger brother Chris, who was feeding him the passes. He still had plenty of gas left as the last bit of ambient forced us to shut down.

But by moving through the different phases of ambient, we were able to get a nice sequence of situations in pretty short order.

Next: Lighting Inside the Box


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Blogger Kyle Fullmer said...

Looks like you've got a sickness, and there's only one cure...

Great work, that headshot most certainly looks like medium format. Can't believe that was done with a single light.

Very informative post. Thank you for that.

December 05, 2011 9:22 AM  
OpenID Joe said...

I thought it was a little ND magic when I first saw the shot posted on Flickr. I guess I'm starting to see the light!! Great series of photo's and breakdown of the lighting setups. I love this stuff.

December 05, 2011 10:14 AM  
Blogger Zack Whittington said...

It may be early, but I'm not getting this concept. Of course I haven't done much action photography...

"As the ambient kept getting darker and darker, I kept panning right to left as Zach came through. This minimized the damages of shooing fast action at a 1/250th of a second."

December 05, 2011 10:24 AM  
Blogger J. Tillman said...

I think every shot can use more cowbell...

I love these shots and explanations. It has really helped me to begin to see the light as a photographer should. Thanks so much David, and don't fear the reaper, or the cowbell.

December 05, 2011 10:29 AM  
Blogger T.J. Powell said...

Great photos and great tips. I need to go out and take some of my playing soccer, you have inspired me to do more. Only problem is the weather is crappy and it is getting cold :)

December 05, 2011 11:58 AM  
Blogger Max said...

@Zack - Hobby pans with the player to attempt to match perfectly the strobed exposure on Zack and the ambient, potentially ghosty, exposure of shooting fast action at way too slow a shutter speed(1/250th). If the camera was held still, you'd see the flashed subject as well as some blur in front or behind him depending when your flash pops during the exposure. The pan also gives the trees in the background a tiny motion blur and I've always liked that effect to convey motion.

Classic Strobist post. Great stuff.

December 05, 2011 1:44 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Really nice pics !
I just wanted to know one detail. Maybe I missed it ...
What is the aperture for the first shot ?

December 05, 2011 3:03 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

I would never criticize you as you are my hero and to me, you shoot art. The headshot would come to life with a catchlight. What happened or was the 'dead eyes' planned?

December 05, 2011 3:35 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Hi Zack,

I'm pretty sure what he means is that he was just panning the camera to track Zach as he ran across in front of the camera. By doing this you slow down the relative motion of the subject and can use a lower shutter speed, to a point. You may still get a little blurring on the hands and feet and also on the background but the face and body should (hopefully) be fairly sharp.


December 05, 2011 4:18 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Not exactly related, but I thought about the pictures you lost while shooting soccer players for "Lighting in Layers".

a) I suppose it comes from Mac OS Finder bonehead decision to replace folders instead of merging them when names collide. I discovered this "feature" while copying wedding pictures this week-end. Good thing I had a complete backup of the folder. This bug seems to have been fixed in Lion.

b) In case of emergency, PhotoRec ( is an open-source software that scans the entire HDD/USB/SD/CF content in order to find deleted pictures. It works great and already saved my ass a few times. I'm pretty sure you could have gotten your pictures back with this great tool.

December 05, 2011 5:21 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


One term I have never in my life heard a non-photographer utter: "catch lights."

I don't give them a lot of thought, to be honest, and I rarely let them guide my lighting.

December 05, 2011 5:33 PM  
Blogger BrettD said...

Thanks...and by thanks, I mean 'damn you' for making me waste half an hour...somehow I didn't know the cowbell reference and I just spent the last 30 minutes on a tangent reading reading about needing more cowbells and watching SNL skits. Not that I have anything better to do or anything :)

Otherwise, great post.

December 05, 2011 6:08 PM  
Blogger Lens Band said...

Man these tutorials bring back memories. Just like the old days from your assignment posts. I really enjoy these DIY lighting articles.

December 05, 2011 9:13 PM  
Blogger Shortini said...

Aloha, I have heard the word Balance for years now and I'm still not clear on how I can actually achieve balance when I'm shoot either in doors or out doors using my flash units. Pro photogs kick around the phrase "balance your lights to the background light, the sun" but it would be great if someone could point me in the direction of something that would clear this up for me. I feel that my outdoor photos are getting better with respect to my lighting but I feel that I am still lacking in some lighting knowledge.



December 05, 2011 10:43 PM  
Blogger sushant s. photography said...

I am a bit confused about the ND and High-sync comparison. you say that with ND filter we can open up the aperture while retaining the flash power. however, if i don't have an ND filter, and i go for High speed-sync, still i can open up the aperture, and with higher speeds still get the same ambient exposure. as for the flash losing power, doesn't an ND filter have a similar effect bu cutting down the flash light and the ambient both? could you please clarify.
many thanks

December 06, 2011 7:34 AM  
Blogger Tim McPhoto said...

The PW Hypersync technology is not as power draining enough to be overlooked. 1/500th can be achieved without any power drain.

December 06, 2011 11:21 AM  
Blogger TMJdoc said...

Very cool ..... I always wanted to do this sort of thing, but with golfers, especially kids. Now, we can't do this sort of thing now in Canada ... snow is on the ground and the hour before sunset is around 3:30 pm !!! But I'd love to do this for a "part time" job starting next year. Is this a photo assignment or a portrait shoot for the kid / his parents ??

December 06, 2011 11:55 AM  
Blogger Stephen Ratcliff said...

Freezing action with strobe and not having the subject blur from ambient light is still the concept that I am having trouble with. In this case, would the soccer player go to a black siloette without flash and is the ratio of flash exposure vs ambient be over two stops?
Too many thoughts spinning without clarity in this confused brain. (In the distance a feeble cry for help is heard.)thanks in advance all.

December 06, 2011 12:34 PM  
Blogger Todd Douglas said...

Just a question regarding part of your article:

With ND, you pay up for a hi-quality filter once and you can use it for every flash, every lens, every platform. Don't skimp on glass here. And while flashing into backlight with an ND filter is pretty straightforward, there are a few steps involved.

Which ND filter do you recommend?

December 06, 2011 12:37 PM  
OpenID mecaphoto said...

Thanks for this David.

Is the ND process in the first set up possible with a polarizing filter?



December 06, 2011 6:32 PM  
Blogger Suzaidee said...

this is a very good tutorial... From one article I'm reading another article... Thanks for sharing :)

December 07, 2011 9:32 AM  
Blogger JS said...

That separation light on the shoe is the pièce de résistance. Professional foresight that paid off really well.

December 07, 2011 9:38 AM  
Blogger Ken Gray Photo said...

Many questions answered here:

Including ND brands of choice.

December 07, 2011 1:56 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Wait, David...

I thought you were not a fan of using ND to throw bg out of focus, and you had several "electronic shutter" cameras you keep around for the purpose of limiting shutter speed enough to open aperture in daylight?

December 07, 2011 3:25 PM  
Blogger KarenF said...

I'm a huge fan of yours (and learned most of what I know about lighting from you), and spoke to you at your Flash Bus tour in Chicago...I asked a similar question to Debbi in California regarding catch lights, and you said the same thing to me. Ha! At any rate, I love your site, and have been wondering about ND filters for this very purpose. Thanks again for a great lesson.

December 08, 2011 12:18 PM  
Blogger An Atheist said...

Great information David! I was shooting a wedding the other day and I stuck my ND on my 70 -200 mm lens because I was shooting into the sun and I wanted to lessen the light hitting my sensor BUT the big difference was I didn't think about balancing light and sun first, then adding ND, then adjusting aperature....and I was all muddled up because it simply wasn't working. Thanks again.

December 08, 2011 12:56 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

There is also another way to do this that works with _some_ studio strobes.

I have an old SB600 that works fine except for the fried flash tube doesn't flash. But I can put it on my D700 and set the camera for Auto FP mode. This triggers the flash at the release of shutter curtain 1. In my case, I sue Pocket Wizard Plus II on a Hensel strobe, which has a long "burn". I can sync at 1/8000 under the right conditions - over 5 stops faster then the regular sync speed. This puts my aperture in the f/2.8-f/4 range in direct sunlight with no ND filters. I don't get motion blur, so sometimes this setup lacks the realism for action - bicycles seem to stand still rater than appear to be moving, etc.

If you aren't "lucky" enough to have a broken strobe, set it for its lowest power and cover with aluminum foil.

December 09, 2011 10:51 AM  
Blogger Tiberius said...

You say that you don't use FP flash because it robs you of flash power, but doesn't the ND filter on your lens do the same thing?

December 12, 2011 6:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Is there a reason why you used a more dedicated flash-head rather than your normal speedlites? It looks like you're getting more and more away from speedlites in your work and going more into dedicated studio flashes.

Could you have done this with your normal speedlite gear or what? Just curious...

December 16, 2011 12:30 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Well, on this shoot I used more speedlights than big flashes, so ... not really sure I follow you.

December 16, 2011 12:37 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sorry David, I suppose i didn't really have a question there. But I do have one now. What prompted your use of a studio flash for this shot instead of a speedlite...and could you have gotten this shot with a speedlite? I'm guessing you could have, but it would be interesting to see your thought process in what to use and least in relation to this shot.

December 16, 2011 3:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

"But at this range I was able to balance what had been f/16 (before the ND) with about 100 watt-seconds of power. "


That's still more than a speedlight. I would have had to go to a more efficient mod, such as a shoot-thru umbrella. And wait for for secs between flashes at full power.

You can do a lot with speedlights. But just because speedlights can do something, does not always make them the best choice. I have and use a variety of light sources.

You may be a little late to the game. Check out this post from a couple years ago.

December 17, 2011 1:03 PM  
Blogger Jeff Squires said...

On the final image, did you have to gel your set up to match the stadium lights?

December 22, 2011 1:50 PM  

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