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Christopher Grey

Working with the Sun

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Shooting in the bright summer sun? Christopher Grey explains how to soften harsh natural light with scrims, reflectors, and fill flash.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.




If there’s one rule that gets drilled into photographers of every skill level, it’s the rule that says the worst time of the day to shoot outdoors is between 10:00 and 4:00. At the risk of drilling it in even deeper, that’s because the sun is high and very bright. The angle of the light is completely unattractive and so contrasty that shadows cannot fill. You may look at your subject and think the sun’s highlight is beautiful (it might be), and you may think that if you expose for the shadows the now overexposed highlight will add to the composition, but it probably won’t.

The secret to successful outdoor images under harsh sunlight is some sort of fill. In this article we’ll look at a couple different ways to soften that ugly light and turn it into something more useful.

As we were preparing to shoot the series below, and were finding the photogenic spots our location had to offer, I turned and looked at my model, Molly. She was standing in exactly the light I just described. Molly is a beautiful woman, but her good looks were no match for the awful angle of the light.

Scrims (also called "silks") are translucent panels that will turn the sun into a sort of softbox. An assistant holds the scrim in such a way as to throw its shadow over the subject. Using a scrim will necessitate a new meter reading, of course, because the fabric absorbs some of the light passing through it. Here's my assistant holding a scrim:

As you can see below, the scrim softened the light considerably. The deep, contrasty shadows are now soft and open. A side benefit of this technique is that the background lightens up because the exposure changed on the model. When the highlights brightened, the shadows opened up and now look like what we might see when we look at the scene with our eyes.

Instead of using a scrim, many photographers prefer to bounce some light back into the scene with a reflector, maintaining a sense of strong light but opening up the shadows. Some use a scrim such as the one my assistant held to reflect light, while others prefer an opaque reflector. Opaque reflectors bounce more light back to the subject because none passes through. There are silver, gold, and combination reflectors available, too, and they add more punch to a shot than simple white light. I’ve found them useful in many situations, but I’ve also found that they can be so bright as to make the model’s eyes water.

I’ve noticed that many photographers have their assistants catch the light from below the model and bounce it back up, as that is the most efficient way to do it. But is it the best way?

I generally have an issue with a bounce from that position when the bounce is evident and is brighter than the shadows on the other side of the face. This bounce in the next image is too strong for my taste because the light reflected from the scrim is close enough to create an upward nose shadow. Notice also how it illuminates the underside of her eye.

Using an opaque reflector at that angle is a bit more problematic, in my view, because the light is so much stronger. My assistant stepped back 3 feet but the effect of the harder reflection is quite evident in the image below. Now the undersides of both eyes are highlighted, as are the undersides of my model's cheeks. Because the bounce light is now a smaller source, the light it throws is more contrasty than before.

My favorite position for a reflector panel is to have the center of it slightly higher than my model’s head and aimed down, catching the light from above her. To me, this is the best of both worlds. The shadows have been opened up, the highlight from the sun is still very strong, and the model looks great. Please understand that I’m not saying you can’t bounce from below. Just be advised of the possible consequences.

One problem you will frequently have when using bounced light as fill is that the subject’s eyes will be darker than you'd like. Fortunately, that’s an easy fix with Photoshop.

My favorite way to fill sunlight outdoors is to use a flash. If you’re content with using accessory flash "as is" and without modifiers, you’ll be able to get by with just about any unit. Most will be relatively useless beyond 10 feet or so, as they just don’t have the power to match the requisite f-stop for bright sun imagery. At ISO 125, for example, bright sun will require an exposure of 1/125 second at f/16, beyond the capacity of many units, even in manual mode. And, of course, the shadows they throw are hard and contrasty—exactly what we should avoid.

If you find yourself doing a lot of outdoor portraiture, you should invest in a unit with considerably more power. In bright sun your aperture selections are dictated by the fastest flash sync speed your camera is capable of, so you’ll need enough to at least shoot at f/13 at 10 feet with the flash aimed into a modifier. The net result is a minus 2/3 stop fill when the aperture is f/16 or a plus 2/3 stop overexposure of the highlights when the working aperture is f/13.

I like to beam my strobe through a medium 3x4 softbox. The nice thing about having enough power to do that is that I can position the box wherever I can find a level place for the stand (within reason, of course), and still get a lot of juice out of the gear. The image below was made at f/18, 1/3 stop less than the sunlight to keep the highlight in her hair. Of course, a softbox from any manufacturer, as well as simple scrims, will absorb light. Make sure whatever you purchase—whether it’s battery-powered studio strobes or an accessory strobe with lots of muscle—can be locked into a modifier to give you the power you need to deal with the sun while producing great results.

Here’s something to avoid: When the sun is high, the possibility of light spilling over the top of your model’s head is very high. When that happens, the first part of the body to catch extra light will be the model’s nose.

Given the ratio of sunlight to flash that we’re working with in this photo, along with the fact that the effects of light are cumulative (light from the sun plus light from the strobe equals brighter light on areas where the two sources overlap), an additional 1/2 stop of light was added to the light on the nose of my model. I did ask her forgiveness when shooting this, and she agreed to forgo her gorgeousness for the sake of the lesson. So, keep an eye on where the sunlight is falling, especially where it overlaps your fill light, and don’t make this mistake.

Overpowering the Sun

It’s also possible, assuming your strobe has enough power, to overpower the light of the sun to make the sky and surrounding background darker. This is a trick that can lend an exceptional level of drama to almost any image made with the sun behind the subject.

I used the same softbox as in the previous images for the shot below, but set the power of the unit to equal that of the sun’s light on the back of the model’s head. The sun is still strong enough to highlight the strands of her hair. Hair is something like a fiber optic cable, and will carry light. Notice, though, that the light on her face is equal to the exposure of the portions of the image that are not affected by the strobe.

Rest assured that this technique works as well with a lower sun as it does with the noon sun I was stuck with for this shoot, and will probably look better, too. For the images below, I powered the strobe up one full stop over what the daylight reading was and shot another sequence. My model’s hair is still nicely highlighted, but the sky is darker and more dramatic than in the previous image. Her skin tones, because they were in shadow to begin with, appear almost exactly the same as in the first shot.

When the intensity of the light is doubled again, to two full stops over the sun, the true drama of this trick reveals itself. The sky is now a shade of blue that you may only see if you’re surrounded by bright sunlit snow and your irises have contracted to the size of pinheads. The model’s skin tones remain the same, as they now receive their only light from the strobe, yet there is still some highlighting from the sun itself.

You can, of course, carry this trick further to three, or maybe four stops over the power of the sun. If your gear is strong enough, you can make the sun as weak as a studio hair light, if that’s your idea of a good time. The final look of your images will depend entirely on your equipment, the effect you wish to achieve, and the strength of the sun when you’re on location.

Category: How-To
Click for more articles of: Christopher Grey

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Exposing for Sunrises and Sunsets
Incident and Reflected Light
Jim Zuckerman on Landscape Photography: Shooting into the Sun
Overcast Day
The Big Light

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