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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