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Here Comes the Sun (and I say) It’s Alright…

December 8th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  2 Comments

I don’t know about you, but my nightmares tend to be about wedding photography.  I arrive at the wedding, only to discover that I have only brought a fisheye lens, or that I have forgotten all of my batteries, or my memory cards, or my pants!  Or the worse one of all, the bride and groom want to do all of their portraits outside…on the beach…at noon!  Unfortunately,that latter scenario is one we are likely to face on a regular basis.  But with a little old school knowledge and a bit of modern technology open sunlight is not something to be feared.  This post will discuss a few strategies for owning the sun!

First off you will need to use something to fill in those nasty shadows caused by harsh sun.  I work alone, and I prefer to travel light, so my answer to the fill problem is a flash.  Chances are you have a flash that will give you enough light to fill in the shadows for a couple or an individual with the on-camera model that you are using.  The easiest way and quickest way to fill in the shadows is to just aim the flash directly at the couple and blast away.  Direct flash is not your enemy in the daylight.  In fact, when I am working outside, no matter what the light, I shoot about 80-90% of my photos with direct flash for fill.  When it’s time for group formals, however, the on camera flash that we all have just won’t cut it.  They simply don’t have the power to overpower the mid-day sun when you have to stand 10-15 feet back to capture a family grouping.  So one of that tools that should be in every professional wedding photographer’s toolkit is at least one flash with enough juice to light a good size group at f16.  I keep a Sunpak 622 handle mount flash in its own bag in my car full time.  The Sunpak is a beast of a flash, with a ton of juice for those situations when I need to be able to blast a lot of light onto a scene.  When beach formal time comes, I mount it to my camera body with a bracket and use it just like they did in the olden days…pointed right at the group.  I typically mark a spot for me and a spot for the formal groupings, so that I can set the camera and flash to a manual exposure/power level and have a consistent exposure on every group.  It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done.  The light is flat, but it is even, which is far more preferable than dark shadows on the subjects faces.

If flat lighting is not your thing, than use an off camera cord or a radio trigger to move the flash off the camera.  When used effectively, and off camera flash can create dramatic lighting effects.  By controlling the ratio of light between your flash and the background, you can control how much your subject stands out from your background.  Underexposing an otherwise brightly lit background can help you to achieve a saturated, contrasty look, or de-emphasize elements of the background that you don’t want to appear in the photo.

Whether you decide to use an on camera or off camera flash, an easy technique for balancing your flash and ambient exposures is to first set your exposure for the background with the flash disabled, then turn on the flash to determine the flash exposure on the subject.  Since the limiting factor in your exposure equation is the maximum sync speed of your camera, set your camera to shutter priority and set your shutter speed to the maximum sync speed.  If I can get away with it, I like to begin with my background exposure about one stop underexposed at the maximum sync speed.  Once I have the correct aperture, I reduce my shutter speed so that the background is correctly exposed.  This allows me to change the background exposure by simply raising or lowering my shutter speed.  Once I’ve determined the correct aperture and shutter speed, I switch over to Manual and dial them in.

With  the background exposure all set, dialing in the flash is a cinch.  With the big Sunpak in Manual setting, I begin with a “best guess” setting and adjust from there.  The beauty of digital is that the instant feedback allows you to see the effect of your adjustments in real time.  It typically only takes 2-3 test shots to find the correct manual flash exposure.  And once you have it, you don’t have to change it…as long as the distance between the flash and the subject doesn’t change.  Since the size of the groups can change from one photo to the next, I use a zoom lens to “get closer” or “move back”.  That way my light stays consistent from one photo to the next because I’m not changing the distance between the flash and the subject.  When using a flash with an auto zoom head, I also make sure to manually set my zoom head so it doesn’t move when zooming the lens, as this will effect the flash exposure.

The final piece of the puzzle is the positioning of the subjects in relation to the sun.  Since the sun is only directly overhead for a short time, I typically have directional sunlight to deal with.  This means I have to decide where I want the sunlight to fall on my subjects.  When possible, I prefer to place the sunlight directly behind the subjects.  In this way, I use the sun as a “kicker” light while my flash serves as the key light.  If the wind or the scenery prevents my from placing the sun behind them, I’ll turn them 45 degrees or so, until the point just before the sunlight hits their faces.  90 degrees to the sun is my next choice.  In this position, the shadows fall over 1/2 of their faces, but if I have my flash dialed in right it should fill in the shadow.  My least favorite position in relation to the sun is the subjects looking into it on account of all the squinting.

If all of this sounds complicated, it’s really not.  It takes longer to explain it than it does to put it into action.  On an actual shoot, I can set it all up in about a minute or two.  Being able to create professional images even in the harsh mid-day light is well worth the time!

About Jamison Wexler

Jamison Wexler has written 15 post in this blog.

Jamie is a Boston Wedding Photographer who believes every client is a rockstar.



  1. Ria MacKenzie Photography says:

    December 8th, 2010 at 8:54 pm (#)

    Thank you for this! I’m photographing a wedding broad day in Puerto Rico and was dreading the bright sun!!!

  2. Admin says:

    December 9th, 2010 at 1:38 pm (#)

    Glad it was helpful, Ria! Best of luck with your wedding in paradise!

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