How I Overpowered the Sun in This Outdoor Portrait Shoot

How I Overpowered the Sun in This Outdoor Portrait Shoot

What happens when the sun is setting and you want to get a balanced exposure of the setting sun in the background and your subject? The reality is you can't without the use of a strobe and high speed sync. In this article, I’ll share with you how I was able to get a perfect exposure on my subject and the background using high-speed sync.  

The Equipment 

To start breaking down this shoot, let's first start with the equipment that I used. The goal I had when I was packing up my car with the gear, was that I wanted my setup to be lightweight, reliable, and something that can help execute the job as efficiently as possible. 

When choosing the camera and lens for this shoot, I went with my Canon 5D Mark III and Sigma 35mm f/1.4. The reason I chose this setup is because of its lightweight low profile, and its dynamic range capabilities. One of the reasons I love shooting with wide angle lenses is the fact that I can get up close to the subject and if shot from below, makes them appear to be important and larger than life. For this shoot, this setup worked perfectly towards the overall look in the final images. 

The next and final pieces of equipment I brought out, were the portable Godox AD200, and its Canon triggers. To modify the flash, I mounted one of my favorite modifiers to it, the 27” inch beauty dish from Impact. The reason this modifier was the perfect counterpart to the harsh sun that was back lighting the subject, was because it matched the hard light coming from the sun and also simulated the light that would come from a reflector.

The Setup

After an hour drive, I arrived on location for the shoot. The first thing that caught my eye were the incredible clouds and the setting sun in the scene. When I realized that the sun was about to go down, I knew I had to act quickly. To get a proper exposure where my highlights weren't blown and my shadows weren't crushed, I began by exposing for the background and sky. As expected, when I brought my exposure down to account for the sky, my subject was completely in shadow. That is when I had to bring out my flash to expose for the subject at the same time. 

The Camera Settings 

In order to expose for my sky and ambient light in the scene, the one thing I kept in mind was that I wanted the images to be as clean as possible. To produce the cleanest images, I kept my ISO to 100. By lowering the ISO, it also helped me cut down the bright ambient light in the scene. The next thing that had to be dialed in was the aperture. When assessing the scene, which consisted of dramatic clouds and a setting sun, I realized that my aperture had to be raised to f/5.6 or above to account for the details of the background. When capturing sharp light sources, the higher your f-stop number (the smaller the aperture), the more of a starburst like effect you’ll get from the light, or in this case, the sun. For these photos, that wasn’t what I was going for, which allowed me to keep my aperture at f/5.6. Another advantage this gave me was that when shooting on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, on this specific lens, since the widest open it goes is f/ 1.4, this means the sharpest image will be produced when using apertures that range from f/5.6-6.3. The last aspect that had to be accounted for, was the shutter speed. Even with the ISO and aperture settings locked in, the ambient exposure was still too bright and my highlights were being clipped. So, I brought my shutter speed to 1/400th of a second. The only catch to setting my shutter speed this high was that it was higher than the average sync speed that my camera has, which is 1/180th of a second. In order to be able to fire the flash and resolve this issue, I enabled the high-speed sync setting on my flash.

This is the SOOC image without the use of flash. In this shot, I am exposing for the ambient, and making sure the details in the clouds and highlights are intact.

The Flash Settings 

Before I dive into what the settings were, I think it’s important to first explain what high speed sync is. Essentially, each camera has a native sync speed of a maximum of 1/250th of a second, and if you go anything above that set number, your camera won’t be able to communicate with the flash. That is when the use of high speed sync comes in. Using this technique, it allows you to raise your shutter speed higher so the flash matches the ambient light. Just know that how high of a shutter speed you can go and still expose the subject correctly, will depend on the strength of your flash or strobe output. 

The main objective when dialing in my flash settings was to match the exposure of the sun, hence the term “overpowering the sun”. I turned on the high speed sync setting on my camera and strobe, and raised the power of the flash to 1/1 power.

The Lighting

For the lighting in these images, I kept it relatively simple. To start, I positioned my subject with his back towards the sun, which served as a perfect backlight in the scene. Since I wanted the light coming from the strobe to look as natural as possible, I placed it four feet from my subject, and raised it about two feet above him. The harshness of the beauty dish light was the perfect style to match the sun. It is important to note, that I could have brought in a reflector to bounce light back onto the front of the subject, but the exposure of the setting sun was so bright (which meant I had to dial my ambient exposure way down) that it would simply not bounce enough light back onto the front of my subject.

Another way you can achieve this same effect of having the details in the sky still there and the subject exposed properly if you don't have a flash, is by doing an HDR photo. A normal HDR photo is a minimum of two separate photographs, one exposed for the ambient, and the other exposed to give a correct exposure on the face of the subject. These two images are then blended together using Photoshop. 

The Final Images


The next time you're shooting at sunset, or you are presented with an array of magnificent clouds, cut down your ambient exposure to expose for the background and use a flash to fill in the shadows of your subject. It's that easy!

Do you have any photos you have taken using this technique? Leave them in the comments below. 

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Previous comments
Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thats good to know. Glad you got something out of it!

Simon Patterson's picture

Nice results! Does the model now need to walk around with a guide dog, tapping his way along the street with a white cane? 😀

MC G's picture

If only I had HSS

Luke Adams's picture

I think this article should be titled “how I filled in the shadows”. Overpowering the sun in my mind means you darken your exposure while simultaneously increasing the power to your flash/strobe until your flash/strobe becomes the brighter source of light on your subject. Essentially replacing the sun as the brightest source of light. Handy in situations when the sun is giving harsh, uneven lighting on your subject, and you replace it with a softer, more even/directional lighting. As the subject in this article is actually just backlit by the sun, you are just filling in the shadows.

Aaron Wigfall's picture

Very simple and and guiding post. Very helpful. Thank you.