Mixing Harsh Shadowy Natural Light With Artificial Light

Mixing Harsh Shadowy Natural Light With Artificial Light

The first time I shot in this style was accidental to be honest. I'd love to say it was an artistic epiphany but sadly the truth of the matter is that I was too darn lazy to close the windows. However when I took the test shot, I realized I absolutely loved the effect! To think that I was rewarded for my lazine...err....creative moment of clarity!

This effect created drama and really brought out the features of my model's face. Now that I look back on my portfolio it seems like I really do like shooting with this effect so the nonsense nature of how it all came about aside, Im certainly grateful to have stumbled into this style.

[iso 100, f4, 1/1600s, filled with Profoto A1]

[iso 100, f4, 1/2500s, filled with Profoto A1]
(Shot for Cosmopolitan HK)

Fighting Harsh Sunlight

More often than not when you read articles about shooting models in situations with harsh the sunlight, the suggestions is to either use it as backlight or move the model into a shaded area or even to cover her with a scrim. If the suggestion was to use artificial light, it would usually be to totally overpower the sun. However, I wanted to show you an alternative where you work both the natural sunlight combined together with artificial light. Options people, options!

[iso 100, f8, 1/200s. Fill light is a gridded strip light. Lights gelled in red for the back]

[iso 160, f10, 1/200s. Fill light is a gridded strip light. Lights gelled in red for the back]
(Shot with Layla Ong from Asia's Next Top Model)

Why Not Just a Reflector?

The main difference between using strobe to fill in natural light compared to using a reflector is the flexibility of angles and since I am not particularly flexible in my gym life, I at least like to be flexible in my professional life. With a reflector, it has to be held in a somewhat opposite direction from the source of light you're trying to fill. Absolutely gets the job done but can be a bit restrictive. However with a strobe light, it can be placed from any angle if you so wish. This gives you options on how you want the shadowed area to be lit.

How to Shoot This

- Place model under sunlight. (Works better if sunlight is at an angle instead of directly top down)
- Choose aperture to work with
- Meter the shutter speed for the highlights 
- Use a strobe and fill in the shadows

I hope the below lighting diagrams help make it clearer!

[iso 100, f8, 1/160s]

[iso 100, f8, 1/60s]


These images were all shot in the presence of sun light. As mentioned above, the first steps include metering for the sunlight made highlights on the models face. If the sun is very strong, your shutter speed may have to go up quite dramatically, especially if you want to have a wider aperture as seen in my first set of images for Cosmopolitan HK.

I wanted to shoot at f4 and that meant my shutter speed had to go up to 1/2500s. Most cameras can only get a flash to properly sync up to between 1/160s to 1/250s. In order to still shoot my image at the aperture I want, I needed a light with HSS (high sync speed). For that shoot, I used the Profoto A1 flash.

On the other hand, if the sunlight isn't too crazy strong like the image below where I actually had to lower my shutter to 1/60s, HSS isn't necessary.

Read more about HSS here in this article!

[iso 100, f8, 1/60s]

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions! 

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Alexander Petrenko's picture

Any scientific way for setting the strobe power? Or just artistic - for the taste?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Honestly, it really depends. How strong the sun is, how dark the shadows are, how much of the shadows do you want filled etc.

Frank Withers's picture

start by ditching ttl and shooting manual and just dial it in. should visually be pretty self-explanatory from that point, to your taste.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Nice article/work Shavonne! I always find myself running away from harsh light or just going wide centering them for a Wes Anderson look and making it a high contrast/harsh light feel. Cheers.

Shavonne Wong's picture

Heheh thank you (:
Now you can try this too! Hope it works out well for you!

Emily Teague's picture

Absolutely wonderful article!! This is excellent information!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you Emily!! (:

Pawel Witkowski's picture

Well I think I have to give it a try, sounds very promising :) Great Photos BTW!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you! Let me know how it goes! (:

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Such beautiful images and well-explained girl! The first time I did this was actually an accident on a sunny day, and I love it now!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Hehe yay! Happy accidents are the best :D

Evens Leandre's picture

This has been something I wanted to try but some reason couldn't get it. Do I need HSS flash?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Do keep trying! HSS is only necessary if it's really bright! Probably when you shoot outdoors.
Some of my shots were done indoor with sunlight streaming through and for those I didn't need HSS.
Hope this helps! (:

Deleted Account's picture

"With a reflector, it has to be held in a somewhat opposite direction from the source of light you're trying to fill." I almost never use my reflectors with natural light for that very reason.

Shavonne Wong's picture

Yeah it's always more fun to have options!