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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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My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto