It’s the middle of the day and the sun is pouring down creating insanely harsh shadows on your model; so you do what most of us do, look for a shady spot.  Well you wouldn’t be shooting outside if you didn’t want your background to look great.  Unfortunately when you expose for your background this happens…

02 Natural_resize

Uh oh!  So now you do what most “natural light” photographers do… you expose for the model (of course) and your left with this…

01 Naturalb_resize

Most photographers leave it at this, as a natural compromise and call it a day.  Some may try and recover some of the sky in post… good luck with that.  Your camera would need 30 stops of dynamic range to deal with this kind of setting.  So if you don’t want to settle what are your options?

One:  You could wait for an overcast day… naw.  You could wait for golden hour.  This would be a great option because the light is amazing at golden hour but sometimes you just don’t have the flexibility to wait.  Now what?

Two:  Use a reflector.  Often a reflector is a great and easy solution.  But in the example above the sun is coming from directly behind me as I hold the camera.  This means to catch enough light to brighten the model enough to match the background you would need a gigantic reflector.  Naw.  So whats left?

Three:  You could take two exposures and combine them in post.  This is what you would have to do if you didn’t know how to “overpower” the sun.  It could work if your model can stand very still and there’s no wind blowing clothing or hair to make the composite nearly impossible.  Bracketing in camera would help with this route.  But still… naw.  There is a much better solution.

The Solution:  You probably guessed it by now.  You need to do exactly what I did to get the final version of the shot;

04 Final_resize

You need lights.  And not just any lights… they have to be pretty powerful.  A flash wont cut it in this situation.  You need use the “S” word.  Strobes!

Most portrait photographers fear strobes like the grim reaper himself.  “They are too expensive.”  “They are too heavy.”  “They are too hard to deal with.”  Then 9 out of 10 portrait photographers say the same thing.  “I’m a natural light photographer!”  And they say it with gusto, as if they are bragging about it.  Naw, I’m sorry, they are just cheap, lazy, or scared… or often all of the above.

It’s not as hard as you think.  It’s not as expensive as you think.  And deep down inside you really do want to take your photography to the next level and stop settling for those blown out backgrounds.

Before anyone misunderstands me, I want to say that I am not against natural light.  In fact a question I get asked all the time is what type of light do I like best.  My answer is always a combination of natural and strobe.  Natural light has a quality that is nearly impossible to mimic with strobes but there are just some shots you can’t get with natural light alone.  For example; the below shot was done with a strobe inside a 36” octobox (camera left), a bare speed light (camera right) and a lot of natural light as fill.


If you agree, and want to learn more about incorporating strobes into your outdoor portraits keep reading.  If not then your just going to have to live with your compromises.


OK good.  Your still with me.  Now, once you accept the fact that there are simply some situations that require a strobe here’s some good news.  Outdoor portraits are often more impressive and easier than studio work.; yes, easier.  The very same sun that is causing all the problems in the first place will help you once you make the leap to strobes.  The sun will actually now act as an amazing fill light.  Because I have the sun filling in all over the place now I will often keep outdoor shoots very simple.  I will often use one or two lights outside whereas indoors I’m often using three, four or even fire lights.  My goto setup for a shoot like this and many others is one strobe as a key light, one flash for accent and a lot of sun as fill.

Now some bad news, or good news depending on how you look at it;  I don’t have time to go into all the details on exactly how to use strobes to get great shots with a balanced subject and background.  It would honestly take hours of writing and a dozen paragraphs of text.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!  Including you.  The good news is you can always stop by the shop and talk to me in person or better yet.  Take my upcoming class which will include 3 hours of instruction followed by a 3 hour on location shoot with models and lights.

Things we’ll cover that you’ll need to know before you head out to do shots like this on your own are;

  • High speed sync (HSS)
  • Strobe output strength (Watt / seconds)
  • Neutral Density Filters
  • Max sync speed
  • Max shutter speed
  • White balance
  • Light modifiers
  • Lens selection
  • Inverse Square Law

And so much more.  Join us Saturday June 23d and 24th for the full scoop.

Flyer Location Lighting


Photo Credits:

Model: Vickie Vo (Miss Vietnam Sacramento, 2016)
Special thanks to @blairkyliejay & @cswrightphotography
Photos & Edits:  Me

© All images are property of Blackriver Photography and Lightsmith Studios.