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How to Create a Sun-shower Photo on a Cloudy Day

Flowers rain CTObackflash

Yes, You Can Change The Weather!

You just brought home a bunch of beautiful flowers, and you’d love to get an interesting photo of them. You take them outside, but it’s a dark, cloudy day. The light is boring, and the forecast is for several days of overcast weather. By the time the sun finally comes out, your flowers may have wilted.

What should you do? Well, you can change the weather. Really, you can by using your off-camera flash and a simple garden hose to create a sun-shower. Thanks to Canon’s wireless flash system you can, in the words of the Temptations, have sunshine on a cloudy day.

Here’s how to create a sun-shower photo on a cloudy day:

Equipment used:

The idea here is to use a wireless flash to recreate the effect of direct sunlight, and adjust the light so it looks natural. Then, to simulate rain, just add water. The flash will create dynamic specular highlights as the water sprinkles through the image. The goal is to go beyond a simple “record” shot of your flowers (or whatever it is you are photographing) and load up your photograph with visually interesting elements.

Step 1: Waterworks

To make this happen, you’ll need a garden hose and sprinkler, with either a nozzle at the end of the hose, or an oscillating sprinkler. If you live in a home with a yard, you most likely already have these. In this example, a hose with a built-in, controllable nozzle was available, so that’s what was used. Make sure the nozzle or sprinkler head is placed in a fixed position, either to the side of or behind the flowers, with the water hitting the flowers but not falling where the flash or camera will be placed.

Caution: Don’t bring your camera gear out yet, it might get wet during this phase.

Setup rainmaker

Be prepared to improvise. In this case, a lawn chair was pressed into service as a way to hold the hose nozzle in place.

Once you’ve adjusted your “rain,” turn off the water and bring out your photo gear.

Choose a longer focal length lens (medium telephoto) and shoot with a wide aperture. This will help blur the background and create separation between background and foreground. An added benefit: the farther working distance between camera and subject will hopefully allow you to position the camera at a safe distance from the path of the water.

Step 2: Composition

Set up your camera (a tripod is highly recommended), focus on the flowers, and compose. Find a dark background to maximize contrast from the “rain,” and leave some room at the top of the image to show the water drops. Just for fun, take a few “before” pictures for future reference.

Flowers noflash

Before – here is the composition, with no added light. It’s okay, but not terribly exciting. Exposure: 1/1000th at f/1.8, ISO 400.

Flowers oncameraflash

Same composition, with the 70D’s built-in flash turned on. You can see more detail, but the lighting is flat and still uninteresting. 1/250th at f/13, ISO 400

Setup behindcamera

All lined up – with the hose aimed at the flowers off to the left, the camera (in this case, a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens) was brought in, and a flash on a light stand was moved behind and slightly to camera right of the flowers. The dark shrubs behind the flowers provide a good contrast.

Step 3: Cue the “sun”

Turn on the flash. Don’t know how to operate a Canon DSLR or G-series compact? Scroll to the end of my article on Using Off-camera Flash to Fix Lighting Problems for Outdoor Portraits to get step-by-step instructions on how to trigger Canon off-camera flash wirelessly. You can control the flash intensity and, through trial and error, find the best exposure for illuminating the flowers.

Flowers plainbackflash

Now we have the backlight flash turned on, but the lighting ratio of ambient to flash light is wrong, and the flowers are overexposed while the effect of the backlighting is barely visible. You may need some trial and error, adjusting the EV and flash intensity settings until you get the right combination. Exposure: 1/250th at f/11, ISO 400

Hint: When adjusting the exposure and flash intensity, check your results in the LCD monitor, but also turn on the histogram to make sure the light is not falling off the chart.

Step 4: Warm up the light

While overhead sunlight is fairly neutral, sunlight in the early and later part of the day takes on a pleasing warm tone. That’s why they call this time of day the Golden Hour. You can emulate this light by using full CTO Orange gel, available in the Expoimaging Rogue Gel Universal Lighting Filter Kit. Now it looks like you’re shooting in late afternoon or evening.

Flowers CTObackflash

Sunset? Nah, it’s the middle of the day. But thanks to the cloud cover and a Full CTO Orange gel over the backlight, it looks like sunset. Exposure: 1/250th at f/11, ISO 400. (make sure to set your shutter speed no higher than your camera’s sync speed)

Setup all

Flowers are placed, flash is gelled, and the “rain” is on. You’re ready for the final shot.

Step 5: Make it rain

Now that the composition and exposure are set and the light is gelled and in place, it’s time to turn on the water.

Flowers rain CTObackflash

It’s a late afternoon sun-shower. This is what your final result could look like. But wait, the drops seem to be going up. Why is that? See below. Exposure: 1/250th at f/11, ISO 400.

In this final shot, the flowers drenched in a sunlit downpour in the middle of a dark, dreary day. There’s one thing that would make this shot better, and that would have been switching to rear-curtain flash sync. In the final example here, the drops appear to be going up because the flash is triggered at the beginning of the exposure. Change your flash settings to rear curtain sync and the drops will be going in the right direction. (There wasn’t time to make the change here because it had started to rain for real, ending the session.)

Have fun transforming your backyard into an outdoor set and creating all kinds of weather.

Thanks to Adorama to sponsoring this series of articles by Mason Resnick.

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Mason Resnick
Mason Resnick

has been educating photographers for over 30 years via articles he’s written as an editor and contributor for Popular Photography and Modern Photography magazines, as well as for a variety of web sites. He’s also a freelance photographer based in New Jersey and has been doing street photography since 1977, when he studied with Garry Winogrand. Visit his web site, or read his blog.