SLC-1L-01: One Speedlight Outdoors — Find Shade

There is an inherent tradeoff when using small speedlights outdoors in daylight. They are light, and convenient and cheap. But they don't have a ton of power.

And the aggravating factor is the relationship between a small flash and a bright environment. Which is, in turn, governed by our sync speed. And by this I mean our natural speed limit for flash, absent power-robbing gimmicks like high-speed sync (HSS).

At a sync speed of 1/250th of a second, even at a low ISO, you are probably going to be at f/16 in full sun. That's a small aperture, which means your flash will be working hard to create a full exposure.

Because of that, working in full sun with speedlights usually means we lack the power that we need. Certainly, we don't have enough power to push the flash's light through a softening modifier to look nice.

The solution: Get more power... or find some shade.

I live in the northern hemisphere. So that means the north side of any building will always be in the shade for me. Ditto the west side (in the morning) or the east side (in the afternoon). Or all sides on cloudy days, which as a lighting photographer, I love.

Shade is darker than full daylight, usually by a couple of stops. That may not sound like much. But with a speedlight, that is the difference between being right at the frustrating edge of what it can do, or being in a comfortable ambient working environment.

Which is to say, shade is dim enough to allow you to underexpose your ambient a stop or two and still be able to fully light with a small flash.

The photo of Rocio, above, in Buenos Aires, is a good example. Let's walk through it.

First, Kill Your Ambient

I am shooting with a Nikon D4 (the day was sponsored by Nikon, so my leaf-shuttered Fuji stayed home). The max sync speed is 1/250th, which is typical for many cameras. So naturally, that's where you want to be if you are trying to kill your ambient light level.

But I often try to cheat that speed limit, especially when lighting outdoors. So I went to 1/320th. Technically, that leaves me with an "unsynched" bar across the bottom. But it is not black in this case. It just gets an ambient-only exposure. Look at the photo, and you'll see it. And that is fine in this case.

And this "overclocked" shutter speed also helps me kill as much ambient as possible. My exposure for this photo ended up being 1/320th at f/11 at ISO 160. The flash, if memory serves, was at 1/2 power.

Shade is Your Friend

So I have gone into shade, created a dark ambient exposure in that immediate environment, and then introduced light from my speedlight through an umbrella. The ambient exposure also becomes the exposure for the areas on Rocio not lit by flash. The ratio between those two is my lighting ratio (highlights to shadows).

I am also using a Rosco 1/2 CTO gel, which added warmth and made Rocio pop in that cool underexposed shade environment.

If we pull back a little, you can get a better feel for exactly where my light is:

If we pull back a little in time, you can see my thought process.

Okay, so you're in a lighting class, and you are demo'ing speedlight in shade. The class is behind you, and many of the students are carrying cameras.

Then, in the background of your photo, you see ... Jorge.

My first thought: "Really, Jorge? You're gonna photo bomb me here dude?"

My immediate second thought: "Oh, wait. That's better than what I was doing. Okay, everybody get into my background..."

Now, my background isn't generic. Now the students are paparazzi. Which visually helps to explain why Rocio is lit against a wall, staring me down, on a street in Buenos Aires.

Serendipity beats preconception, every time.

FILED: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, One Light

NEXT: How to Completely Break These Rules By Using Two Speedlights


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