An Easy Way to Turn Daylight Into Night With Flash

If you've ever wanted to create more dramatic portraits with minimal effort or even completely in-camera with no Photoshop, this video is for you. In this photoshoot, I set out to create a dramatic editorial image that looks like it was shot late at night. The catch: I'm actually going to be taking the photo at 4 pm.

As photographers, our job often requires us to create two different types of photos. The first is more or less a standard image that simply looks "nice." These images are often bright and airy, and they may look natural, even though we relied on strobes or constant lights. Or, they might be exposed dark, but they still basically represent the scene as it was presented. The second type of photograph we often have to capture is much more flashy and dramatic. These images might require using multiple lights and lighting tricks to produce something that looks nothing like reality. 

Today's article and video focus on these more intense and embellished styles of photography. While I'm not going to be using a ton of flash (I'm limiting my kit to just two Profoto B10 Plus strobes), my goal for at least one set of images is to create a dramatic "hero shot" that looks like it was taken late at night instead of during the day. I like to call this the "faking the night" technique. 

This image was actually shot in bright daylight

There are many reasons you might want to make your images look like they were taken at night instead of during the day. The most obvious reason is you have a time constraint. Your subject is on a time crunch and you can't spend the whole afternoon with them capturing photos. You have to decide: do I want daylight-looking images, or do I want dramatic nighttime-looking images? With this technique, you can do both.

The second reason you might want your images to look like they were taken at night is simply that nighttime photos are cool and add a bit of mystery. Taking dark images is fun and offers a completely different narrative to your story than those bright and airy shots we are accustomed to seeing.

The third reason you might want to create images that look like they were shot at night but actually were captured during the day has to do will fill light. In many cases, if you take a photo at night, your background will be completely black with absolutely no detail. Many photographers combat this by shooting during the "blue hour" or the last 30-60 minutes of visible daylight so that there is still some slight detail in the shadows. If you can create a night-looking image but shoot it earlier in the day, you can also retain a lot more highlights and shadows in your dark background. You also aren't constrained by a tiny window of perfect light that only lasts less than an hour. 

The Camera Settings

This "faking the night" technique works hand in hand with some specific gear you are going to need, so I'm going to talk about it all in one section. The basic formula for this is we need to underexpose our ambient light a lot and make it look like nighttime. This means you need to crank your ISO down to the lowest setting (ISO 32-64 on my Nikon D850), set your aperture to your desired depth of field (smaller apertures help lower exposure), and finally, set your shutter speed to the fastest setting that still allows you to sync to strobes (more on that in a bit).

Let's first talk about aperture a bit, because in some ways, it is the first thing you are going to really consider when it comes to creating your final image. If you crank your lens' aperture down to say f/8 or f/16, you can pretty easily create a dark frame at ISO 100 or lower. This will give you a lot of depth of field, though, which is very useful for many types of portraits, but it won't give you that shallow depth of field that is so commonly used in separating a subject from their background. If you know you need a lot of the scene to be in focus or if your subject has a lot of depth to it that all need to be sharp, you might want to shoot closer to f/8 than wide open. However, if you want to blur the background out and give your image that 3D look, you will definitely want to shoot closer to f/2.8 or even wider. 

Shooting at f/2.8 helps separate the subject from the background

The problem with shooting wide open at f/2.8 during the daytime is that it will be nearly impossible to underexpose your scene while limiting your shutter to your camera's flash sync limit. Typically, most cameras can't sync to flash past 1/160th or 1/250th of a second. This means at ISO 32, f/2.8, and 1/250th of a second, your ambient-only test shot is still going to be too bright. Until camera manufacturers start allowing us to go down to much lower ISO levels like 15, 10, or 4 (and wouldn't we all love that), there are only two real ways to solve this problem. The first is adding a neutral density filter to your lens, which cuts the light even more without affecting your shutter or aperture or using strobes that let you sync past that 1/250th shutter limit. Luckily, many flashes allow you to do just this!

This photoshoot was sponsored by Profoto, and if you've watched any of my other videos on the Fstoppers YouTube channel, you know that I've been using Profoto lights as my main lighting system for ages. I made the switch to Profoto late in my wedding career back around 2012 and never looked back. Keep in mind, this technique can be used with any brand of flash, but the big takeaway is that you need both the ability to sync past your camera's native sync speed, and the more power your flash unit packs, the more easily you will be able to achieve the punch you need to darken your skies in bright light situations. For this shoot, I'm using Profoto's B10 Plus heads, which allow me to sync well beyond 1/250th of a second and 500 Ws of power.

The Flash Technique

Now that we have a natural light shot that looks pretty dark and moody, the next step is to correctly expose our subject. Since the scene is underexposed by a few stops, our subject is going to fall into a less than desirable level. In order to correctly expose our subject, the unbelievably ripped and athletic Datus Puryear, we need to add flash to our scene.

Since I want to shoot pretty wide open on my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, my ambient-only photo needs a shutter speed of around 1/800 to 1/1,000th of a second in order to darken the scene. Since my shutter is well beyond my Nikon's max sync speed of 1/250th of a second, I know I'm going to have to use Profoto's High-Speed Sync mode.

You often have to use High Speed Sync mode with this technique

When the Profoto TTL Air Remote shows the Hi-S symbol under the sync setting, you can now set your camera's shutter speed pretty much anywhere you need it and get a correct flash exposure. Keep in mind, when using High-Speed Sync mode on any flash system, your camera's shutter speed now affects the exposure of the flash, so faster shutter speeds will cut the light pretty significantly. This means if you are shooting in super bright situations, you are going to need even faster shutter speeds, which might limit your flash output significantly. In these extreme situations, you might have to move your flash even closer to your subject or remove any modifiers you are using to maximize light output. For my shooting situation, I was shooting around power level 8-10 with the light about 6 feet away from Datus.

Now that we have the exposure dialed in with the flash, the next step is to consider the quality of light you want to hit your subject. If you were to use this technique with a beauty model and wanted softer light, you might consider putting an umbrella or softbox on your light. Since I'm going for an edgy, commercial looking image, I decided to light Datus with the Profoto Zoom Reflector, which gives harder-edged shadows and brighter specular highlights on his skin. You can see in the example below how much flash helps in this exposure as well as the overall edgy look caused by the reflector dish.

The Final Touches

Now that we have a basic image with a very underexposed background and a proper exposure on our subject, it's time to turn give this image its nighttime final look. In order to do that, we are going to do two things. First, we need to change our white balance setting from 5,000 K down to around 3,200 K. This will make all our ambient light and flash look extremely blue.

The next crucial step is to now gel our key light with a CTO gel so that we can make the light on our subject look more normal by warming it up. If you are a Profoto user, the brand new OCF II Gel Holder and Gel Kit are perfect for attaching a gel between your strobe and light modifier. I've always hated having to tape my gels to my strobe and then fight to get the modifier back over the thick mess I've made, but this new system adds to what I already think is the best attachment design out of all the flash manufacturers. Below, you can see an example of how big of a difference this makes.

Now that we have rounded off the fake night sky look, the last thing I want to do is add a little bit of fill light to my subject. This can be done to taste, but I find that darker skin tones reflect a lot of nice highlights when you have a fill light, and since Datus is also wearing a very black Nike basketball jersey, adding just the smallest pop of flash into the shadows will really bring the total image together.

As I explained in the video, there are many places photographers like to place their fill light. The most subtle location is right behind the camera since it doesn't really cast any new shadows and the specular highlights will reflect the most on Datus's skin, the basketball, and the jersey. This light is not gelled so that it has the same blue color as the warm ambient light created by the midday sun. If you want to get really funky, feel free to gel your fill light different colors to create something that has more color saturation in the shadows.

Adding a little bit of fill flash brings out some definition in the shadows

The final last bit of special sauce I add is in post-production, where I usually put a simple Exposure X film effect on my favorite images. Exposure X is one of my favorite pieces of software, and it allows you to not only replicate film looks digitally, but you can add all sorts of cool color effects and overlays to your work. For this particular image, I just wanted to play with the tones of the sky a bit and make them a little more cyan to give it an almost cross-processed look.

I hope you guys enjoyed this shoot. It's been challenging getting back out on location and shooting during this pandemic, but I hope you can take some of these tips and apply them to your own work. This look is obviously pretty stylized and isn't going to work for the majority of your shooting situations, but it's still a really handy trick to have up your sleeve when you need a night look but are pressed to shoot earlier in the day.

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37 Comments

Alexander Petrenko's picture

In today’s tutorial we’ll learn easy way to turn day into night using basic gear worth $6000 only.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Not that fast, that's one option, but I bet it works smoothly. You can High Speed Sync with many devices, it's up to your search and your budget. You can hyper sync too and again, it does not have to cost that much, however, high end products can be super fast to set, effective and consistent if you want to work fast and maximize your time.

Zach Ashcraft's picture

Could easily be achieved with a couple small flashes and a simple gel kit for $500 or less. The concept is what's important and its pretty easy to see how to implement this technique regardless of the cost of your gear

Mark Alameel's picture

For the new photographers, you can do everything in this tutorial with basic gear. Profoto is the sponsor, but the technic will work with any of the flashes I have now or ever had including my old hot lights.

Billy Paul's picture

He used a 600Ws strobe at max power and 1/1000th to darken ambient (which wasn't very bright to start with).

A 600Ws portable HSS capable strobe isn't basic gear it is also not something you can replace with a couple of small flashes.

To turn day into night you have to overpower ambient by 2 or 3 or 4 stops and the only way a low power light can do that is by having it stuffed right in the model's face.

Ryan Cooper's picture

You just can't do it with HSS. Lights with HSS on will lose more and more output the faster you set your shutter speed. (Because HSS works by pulsing rather than just releasing a single full flash charge at once) To do this look with speed lights you cannot go into HSS range. (aka 1/250th for most DSLR cameras)

To get your exposure down so ambient is really dark, you then have two choices. A) Stop down like crazy or B) Use a strong ND filter.

This technique also works with any number of much cheaper full-size strobes on the market that do not support HSS.

Granted, you won't be doing this in direct high noon sun on a cloudless day because speedlights simply lack the power but it can work perfectly fine at dusk or under heavy cloud cover.

You also may be limited in the size and softness of modifier as a speedlight is certainly going to struggle to fill a big octa while also overpowering the sun.

(This is how we used to do this before HSS existed)

Billy Paul's picture

"You just can't do it with HSS"

You can't just do it without HSS either.

Taking the article example HSS at 1/1000th is about 3.5 stops down on non-HSS. If you sync at 1/250th then you need 2 stops of ND filter to bring exposure back down. So you gained 3.5 stops and lost 2. The 1.5 stop advantage on non-HSS is independent of HSS shutter speed and is less if your sync speed is less than 1/250th.

So instead of a 600Ws HSS strobe you would need a group of 3 typical speedlights or a 200Ws strobe.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Which means you can? I'm confused. You just said you can't then explained exactly how it is possible.

Regardless, I know it is possible because I've done it many times. But yeah, sometimes you gotta mount more than one speedlight but I never said it could be done with a single speedlight just that you can do it without HSS.

Though, if I "had" to do it with a single speedlight, I could make it work. I'd have the speedlight on max power at 1/250th. I'd have the light half as far away (might need a longer lens) as in Patrick's video and I'd accept that maybe I have to push the sky down a stop or two in post. (depending on how bright the sky is, with dark cloud cover it might work just fine) Net result is a very similar image.

The point is that it can be done cheaply if you want to. HSS isn't needed, nor is an expensive fancy battery-powered high output strobe.

Billy Paul's picture

"Which means you can? I'm confused."

I took issue with the "just" part. The implication of it being trivial. If you use ND filters instead of HSS you still need a 200Ws strobe or triple speedlights and I didn't see any mains sockets on the bridge in the video. Or as I already said you stuff the light in the model's face. Selective exposure adjustment in post isn't 'just' either.

Jan Holler's picture

Yes! Finally one with the simple idea of using a ND-Filter. And if you want do go down more you can stack two ND filters. Or, if you do not have ND-filters but polarizers, use two of those.
Otherwise I suggest using H-Sync instead of HSS for the flash(es) if possible (H-Sync flash heads have a longer flash duration).

Tammie Lam's picture

Yeah, he was supposed to sell his profoto gear and buy a brand <put_the_name_here> so you couldn't post your sarcastic comment :)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

It would be sarcastic comment with $4000.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Could be time you explain what you are expecting, may be some can help you with more suggestions.

Jason Lau's picture

I've been enjoying more original content like this. Keep up the great work!

Mark Alameel's picture

I agree. This is a great post, simple, fun, and too the point. The write up was great as well. I hate when I see tutorials and its only the video. I prefer the write up and then the video as a supplement.

When its the other way around, we get tutorials that are half b-Roll and 25% of the guy yapping on about his life's journey. :D

Jose Pacheco's picture

I do agree as well, great post, simple and straightforward. I do have a 600w battery flash (from another brand) that I need to take out a bit more.

Only if he would use a Nikon (neehkon) instead...😉

Christophe Serres's picture

Very nice Patrick !! Good result

D Man's picture

Hell, I don't need anything...my photos look like I shoot them at midnight at high noon!

Gregory Urbano's picture

this is a technique that i am trying to master and incorporate into my portrait shoots, thanks for the info, sounds easy to do but harder to actually acomplish

Lawrence S's picture

It reminds me of the insane sync (not high speed sync, just full sync) speeds you could do with the Nikon D70, because of its hybrid shutter (mechanical & electronic). All the way to 1/8000, if you placed some tape between the hotshoe and the flash (create a dumb shoe, basically). That top speed did result in some sensor blooming. Sweet spot was about 1/2000s. But you could turn day in night without any problems or freeze liquid droplets with one off camera flash. Good times.

Patrick Hall's picture

Yeah I never owned that camera but almost bought one a few times just for that feature. I think it was because it had a global shutter which no one experimented with much after they all went from CCD to CMos sensors. You can achieve this look easily with medium format cameras that have leaf shutters but I can’t imagine the push back I’d get if I used one of those cameras for this tutorial!

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I’d surely join the protests asking to stop the spread of capitalism after that...

Dana Goldstein's picture

You mentioned the sponsorship in literally the 10th paragraph. Not ok. When a video is sponsored, come clean right away.

The shots are good, but can just as easily be achieved with an ND filter, a piece of gel, and a mid-priced strobe. Hell, you could do it with an Alien Bee. (And have enough left over to get more Bees.)

D Man's picture

Dana, if you had enough left over, could you get the gees also?

(LOL)

Dana Goldstein's picture

Maybe - I went to high school with Barry Gibb’s son Stephen. 😊

Patrick Hall's picture

I mention sponsored in the video in the first 20 seconds. If you enjoyed the tips, I'm not sure why it matters where the sponsored mention occurs. The video was the main content either way.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I think it is painful that Fstoppers staff never stop bragging about there expensive light gear while I have to do my best with some China made stuff costing only a fraction :)

Benoit Pigeon's picture

So if a Pro actually buys equipment he can afford, can charge clients to pay it off and make a profit from his work, he is automatically wrong?
Get some used ABs, do some search and you'll see you can do it too. Absolutely no need to expect the writer of a lighting technique to go buy new equipment. There is something you got wrong here, but the article is accurate.

Gene Smith's picture

Your headshot suits you. I bet it cost a fraction...

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