Overpowering the sun with your speedlight

One thing that I love to do with my flashes during the day is to have them overpower the sun to create dramatic light. A really cool part about some of the latest flash gear is that it allows you to shoot at any shutter speed and this gives you a ton of creative control when it comes to shooting portraits in the bright sun. Today I want to chat about a really easy technique that helps you get some very dimensional and dramatic light in the full sun by overpowering the sun with your flash and turning your flash into the main light.

Many times during the day we use our flash as a fill light to fill in shadows. You can read a little more about this here: Using fill flash to improve your photos. But today I want to talk about something the exact opposite of that, using the flash as your primary light and creating more dynamic light.

When shooting in the midday light the key to getting a really saturated sky and background is with your shutter speed. The images that I used here to illustrate this are really easy to setup and the concept of this type of lighting is very straightforward. First a little background info. These were shot in the middle of the afternoon with the sun up very high. The sun was positioned behind the subject and if I took a meter reading of the proper exposure on the background area it was around 1/1250th of a second at f/2.8 when shooting at 200 ISO.

overpowering sun with speedlights

With the image above I am shooting it exposed for the background and with my flash set to E-TTL to fill in any shadows on the face. This gives a nice and even portrait and for many weddings I shoot this would be a nice type of light to have for a portrait.

For this shot I am shooting with a Canon 5D, 28-70 2.8 L lens and using the Pocketwizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 radio triggers to control the flash. The really great thing about using these for quick location work like the weddings that I photograph is they have high speed sync so you can shoot at any shutter speed and also have E-TTL. With this the flash will set the amount of light it needs based on how far the subject is from the camera and allows you to work in quick scenes. E-TTL is like anything automated and isn’t perfect so many times I do shoot all manual and get my lights dialed in but many times with fast paced work it comes in handy.

Then in order to get this deep blue sky and more dramatic lighting all we need to do is change our shutter speed in the exposure. I change my camera settings to Manual and then dial the exposure to underexpose the image. When shooting with flash your exposure is what controls the background but has no effect on the actual exposure of the flash that is falling on the subject. Since you are changing only the background and ambient light but not the flash the light coming out of the flash now takes on the position of the main light in the scene and allows you to get deep shadows on your subject and a nice dramatic light.

Here I adjusted my shutter speed from 1/1250 to 1/8000 and kept the aperture at f/2.8. This underexposed the scene and without the flash would be very, very dark. Handholding the flash as high as I could with my left hand I let the flash provide the main exposure on the subject. By holding the flash to the side and up high it created a nice shadow on the side of his face. I could have put the light on a light stand and moved it higher up and to the left to make an even more dramatic shot.

That’s it, a pretty quick way to get a dramatic sky and light using your flash and a little creative exposure. If you have any questions or thoughts just let me know in the comments below.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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