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How to Beat the Midday Sun!

A Guest Post by Tam Steele Daly

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We’ve all heard the saying, even in photography, that the only people out in the midday sun are – Mad dogs, Englishmen and Wedding photographers!

Well after years of following that train of thought I decided to play around with the idea of not being beaten, by the sun that is!

The other weekend Molly – my 3 year old daughter and I, went down to the Toronto boating club and Redhead beach (NSW Australia), between 11am and 3pm to see what we could achieve with a bare speedlight, a neutral density filter and the sun.

As the sun is a harsh light source, we decided to fight fire with fire, and use a bare speedlight, absolutely no modifier! On paper it all looked straight forward – and . . . it was easier and so much fun.

Below are the specs of our gear and a rough plan of how we achieved this.

Tech Specs:

  • DSLR Camera (non-specific).
  • 24-105 lens
  • ND4 neutral density filter (2 STOPS). A Polariser will stop down light too.
  • Speedlight
  • Speedlight mount (tripod, light-stand, VALS)
  • Remote control for speedlight (radio, CLS, cheap remotes, curly cords, magic eye…)


Technical Description:

The Scene, during our shoot, read an Exposure of – f/11 @ 1/125 – ISO 100
As I was using flash, the first thing I did was to set my camera’s Shutter Speed to – Max Sync Speed 1/200.
This meant my exposure settings now had to be set to – f/9 @1/200 – ISO 100
Explain: By moving the Shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/200 I decreased exposure by 2/3rds of a STOP.

To make up for this I had to change APERTURE from f/11 to f/9. Hence – f/9 @ 1/200

I could now match the sun’s power at f/9 @ 1/200 !

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Now, I know that at f/9 my speedlight would be working flat out, giving me a slow recycle time, which was no good for me; my model today was a 3 year old girl! I wanted a faster recycle time, to catch those cheeky little looks and also to be ready for whatever may happen! For this I decided to dial the sun down even further by attaching an ND4 Neutral Density filter to my lens. This would decrease my exposure by 2 more STOPS and mean I could match the sun’s power at f/4.5 @ 1/200, and in turn increase my recycle time.

Explain: Aperture f/9 minus 2 STOPS of light equals f/4.5

So, for a few hours of clear sky daylight, my exposure settings were – f/4.5 @ 1/200 – ISO 100. This gave me a preferred narrow depth of field and a faster recycle time on my speedlight, which was set to about 1/4 –1/2 power (depending on the distance from light source to Molly).

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All I had to do now was line up my Speedlight to face the sun and persuade my model to stand in the middle – simple !

A little trial and error told me that I needed a low contrast background. So, I realigned my speedlight to face the sun where I could place Molly in front of a low contrast background (See diagram)

At this point the exposure was sorted, the background was sorted, all I needed now was to fire off a few exposure test shots. It was here that I threw teddy on the mark and asked Molly to go pick him up and hold him over her head! When she did this I fired off a few shots, adjusting the speedlight distance as I went along. Finally I found that at 2m I had enough power to reach her, enough footprint to cover her, and far enough away from her that she couldn’t knock it over !

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All I had to do now was ask her to remain on the spot whilst I moved around her taking her photograph. I found that my shooting arc was about 60 degrees either side of the speedlight (see diagram).

Post Process

In post process I adjusted levels, this is a necessity. I then added a light Topaz mask and a vignette – both of which are highly subjective.

Tam Steele Daly runs a small photo school in Newcastle NSW Australia. The name of the school is Studio 22 (Steele Photography’s Studio 22). Check out her websites at:

www.photographycourses.net.au – for the school.
www.newcastlephotographer.com.au – for general photography
http://hunter-360.blogspot.com/ – A Hunter Region blog
http://shotbyus.wordpress.com/ – A student feedback blog/journal

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