Shooting in bright light

Shooting in bright light

Part 1 of a 2 part series on working in harsh light.

This article covers the basics and approach to using on-camera flash in bright sun. Off-camera flash will be discussed in issue 54.

Download the original article here.

As a flash user, sooner or later there will come a time when you need to pit your wits against the sun itself. This is not an impossible battle to win, but getting to a point where you’re able to consistently produce good images takes practice and a good understanding of the obstacles you need to overcome.

Before we get started, a few small disclaimers:

  • This article is about shooting in direct, harsh sunlight. Looking for a shaded area to place your model in is a great idea, but that’s not the lesson I want to teach today.
  • This article is aimed at solo photographers working alone with minimal gear.
  • I’ve tried to present a variety of options which should cover both the budget conscious photographer as well as the photographer who is fortunate enough to have more advanced gear. Sometimes, getting things right means having the right piece of equipment. Knowing why something is used is far better than knowing that it was used.
  • My articles build on each other. Feel free to go back to previous articles if there are specific concepts that don’t make sense.

So let’s get into it.

Problems, problems, problems.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, so the song goes.

Aside from the discomfort factor for both model and photographer, there are some very real issues with photographing in bright sunlight, and they can be immensely frustrating to deal with.

Which direction to shoot in?

The question is essentially an easy one to answer. A model facing into the sun is going to squint. Shoot with the sun behind your model. In this case, the sun was behind and to the right of the model. Her face is in shade which is comfortable for her, and also gives me a blank canvas (so to speak) for adding flash.

The balancing act between aperture and shutter speed.

This is essentially where things go awry for most photographers. There are 2 very conflicting considerations involved in a shoot like this – shallow depth of field for portraiture and shooting no faster than sync-speed when using flash.

Let’s explore this.

Before I started I took these 2 images to see what my exposure settings were.

Image 1: The first image was taken in shutter priority at sync speed, to get a ball-park aperture. If I want to use flash I cannot shoot faster than sync-speed. Unsurprisingly for a bright day, the aperture was pretty small. (f16)

ISO 100, f16, 1/200s

Image 2: The second image was shot in aperture priority at f2.8. The idea here was to see what shutter I’d need to use if I wanted the shallowest depth of field my lens could give. And again, no surprises that the shutter speed was pretty fast. (1/5000s)

ISO 100 f2.8 1/5000s

At this stage, a few things are running through my head.

  • F16 is a lot of depth of field, which is not always a great idea for outdoor portraiture. I like the model to stand out by blurring the background to a degree – having everything sharp works against this idea. Not to say that this is always the right thing to do. As with most things in photography it’s about personal taste and the intent of the photographer.
  • The flash (Canon 580 EXII) is probably going to be pretty close to the model. I know this because I know the guide number of the flash (58). If I divide 58 by my aperture I will get the distance in metres where a full-powered flash would need to be placed to correctly expose my subject. In this case 58/16 = 3.6. But that’s for a bare flash. The minute I add any sort of modifier I’m going to lose a few stops of light from the flash.
  • If I want a shallow depth of field I am going to have to use high speed sync. This dramatically decreases the efficiency of the flash.


Let’s start by taking a look at a progression of images, and the thought process behind them.

On-camera flash.

This is usually everyone’s starting point. The light is always with you, and there is no need to lug around a light stand or risk having the stand fall over and damage some pretty pricy gear.

Ok, so here we’ve gone back to the scenario above. Shooting at sync speed of 1/200 means that flash is happy, but does necessitate a small aperture with resultant increased depth of field. Flat lighting on the subject is certainly not hideous, but doesn’t have any real finesse.

Now to the other end of the spectrum – Shooting wide open to get a shallow depth of field. Shooting faster than sync speed requires the use of high-speed or focal plane sync. The loss of flash efficiency when using high speed sync is a potential issue. In this case it is doing the job just fine at 1/5000s because the wide aperture is letting in as much of that flash light as the lens is able to, and the relatively short flash-subject distance is also helping out. If we started moving away from the subject (if we were using a telephoto lens for instance) things would probably not work well.

As always, I hope this has taught you something and given you a better grasp of the fundamentals behind shooting in bright light – the next article will focus on off-camera flash techniques in bright sun.

As always, Happy flashing!