How I Shoot: A Daylight Strobist Portrait

You know it’s been nearly 10 months since I did my How I Shoot: Lowkey Portrait, what a slacker I am. Life just gets in the way sometimes… you know? But yeah, a new How I Shoot — ooh ooh exciting isn’t it. So this time I wanted do to an article that explained how I mix daylight with strobes.

Lighting Diagram

Equipment List

  • Camera: Canon 5D MkII

    Any dSLR will be fine.

  • Lens: Canon 50mm F/1.4

    A prime lens with a wide aperture is preferable

  • Flashes: Canon 580ex & 430ex

    You could do a shot like this with a single flash & any flash that you can fire wirelessly will work. I use Yongnuo RF-602s to fire mine.

  • Accessories: 2 light stands, 2 light brackets, 1 Westcott Apollo Softbox, 1 umbrella, a tripod & the SUN!

    You don’t need a umbrella or any light modifier this shot could be done with a bare flash.

Shooting Conditions & Location

When you are shooting with the sun, the time of day, location & your positioning are very important. Believe it or not THE SUN IS BRIGHTER THAN YOUR FLASH which can make it very hard to balance, especially since you can only use a limited range of shutter speeds due to the flash sync speed. Shooting a bit later in the day can make your life a lot easier, especially if you’re wanting to shoot with a wider aperture. I did this shoot at around 5pm when the sun was just starting to fall out of the sky. If you are shooting with the sun behind you, lighting the background & subject, it would be fairly pointless adding a flash you either want to be shooting into the sun, almost creating a silhouette of your subject, or shooting from a location that’s shaded, or both. I went for both on this shoot — I found a nice spot in the woods facing the right way for the sun set, under the cover of a lot of trees.

Basic Framing & Exposing The Available Light

After I’ve got my location right what I like to do is get my basic framing; nothing set in stone (it can be tweaked later) I just need the general idea so I can start getting the available light just how I like it. I use a tripod for quite a lot of my shoots so I get it setup, camera locked into place & then wander round till I’m relatively happy with it. Whenever I am doing a strobist shot I ALWAYS get my available light, in this case daylight, exposed correctly before I add in any flashes. It will make subsequent steps so much easier to get right & help you get to a better end result in less time. With this shot I wanted to get the nice orange tones out of the sunset & leave my subject quite under exposed, almost silhouetted, while staying within a useable range.

Usable Range — When you are setting up your camera for a strobist portrait remember you only have a certain usable range with some of your settings. As we are shooting a person we want our shutter speed at at least 1/50th & we are using strobes so no faster than 1/250th. We’ve got to consider aperture here too — if we are shooting very wide, e.g. F/1.4, it’s easy to over expose the daylight; if we are shooting very narrow, e.g. F/16, we could soon be in a position where the flash just isn’t bright enough.

Too Dark

ISO100 — F/2.0 — 1/200th I guessed some initial settings that I thought might work with the daylight & give me the look I wanted. First try left my shot much too dark all over but I got a good starting point to work from.

Too Light

ISO400 — F/2.0 — 1/50th The next lot of settings I tried were much too bright for what I wanted & I had lost the colours from the sunset.

Just Right

ISO200 — F/2.0 — 1/80th Third time lucky, I split the difference between the last two shots & nailed it. My background looks good & subject is underexposed — now I can start thinking about adding some of my own lights to bring the subject back to life.

Add Strobes

Because I was in such a dark shaded environment, I wanted to use two strobes in this shot. The first as key light to expose the subject nicely & then a second fill light reducing the contrast of the scene & illuminating the area around the subject a little giving us a little context. The fill light isn’t essential, you could happily shoot without it, but I thought it really added to the shot & would save me time trying to rescue some of the details on the ground & trees in post production. I always start by getting my key light right first; I wanted to get a really nice soft light & cast a gentle shadow onto the tree from the subject. The process of getting the exposure for the flash right is very similar to exposing the ambient light, except this time we are changing the settings & position of the flash.

The Key Light

I put my Canon 580ex into my Westcott Apollo & placed them out wide & to the side. I set it to a low power, 1/32th, & took a shot, it was too dark & the shadows were too flat — I turned it up & moved it slightly further from the camera then took another shot. I did this a few times until it was on 1/8th power & I was happy with the positioning.

Adding The Fill Light

Once my key light was dialed in I set up my fill light, for this I was using a Canon 430ex in an umbrella box. The umbrella box is great for giving a good even spread of light. I set it up camera right — quite high & angled down. I then used the same process to get the power right — 1/8th. You can see that the fill light gives us much more environmental detail.

It can take a little bit of playing around to get the lights just right, it’s very trial & error, but after a little experience you’ll notice it’ll take you a lot fewer tries to get it right. I’ve done a nifty little top down lighting diagram for you too just to make it a little easier for you to get your head round where everything was.

The Shot

All the strobes are in place, the natural light is exposed beautifully, all that is left to do is take the photos! Work through some poses with your subject, remember you are meant to be having fun, talk to them lots, put them at ease, make them laugh. Take LOADS of photos, if you take 100 photos & you have 1 good one then you are WINNING & you’ve probably got some tigerblood in ya. This is one of my finals with a touch of editing, mostly a bit of contrast and some tonal adjustments. You can see this shot on my Flickr where you’ll be able to check out the large version & see all the EXIF data… if that’s your kinda thing.

How I Shoot: A Daylight Strobist Portrait - 5536139232_9bf9bb1644_o Photographed by Rick Nunn
How I Shoot: A Daylight Strobist Portrait - 5547957083_04f42eaf50_o Photographed by Rick Nunn

Super Bonus Alternate Shot

I loved this shot too, I don't normally shoot in portrait orientation but this one really works for me.

Watch Me

I didn’t even think it was possible, but I think this video is even worse than the last, at least you’ll be able to see the shoot a bit… I should have planned better.

Home Work

So basically cancel whatever plans you did have for this weekend, you’re going out to do a photo shoot. No seriously, I don’t care who’s birthday party/bar mitzvah/funeral you are meant to be going to — cancel it. You are gunna do a shoot, in the daylight, with a flash, like this. Once you’ve done it leave me a comment & let me know about it. You should upload it to flickr too & add it to my Flickr Group!

You should follow me on twitter to hear about my next post, oh & all the other adventures I get up to.


Big thanks to John for doing the behind the scenes footage, Leah for modelling & Abi for doing the makeup & styling — & to Josh for letting me borrow his 550D to film this on.