How to shoot outdoor portraits using the sun as a back light

Oct 31, 2021

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

How to shoot outdoor portraits using the sun as a back light

Oct 31, 2021

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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When you’re outside shooting on location you don’t always want to heft a lot of gear around with you, particularly if you don’t have an assistant. So how can you shoot dramatic portraits with just one light? Simple! Use the sun as your second light source. It’s relatively simple to do, requires no battery packs and creates a beautiful slightly cinematic look. In this video, Ashley from Westcott shows you how to do it.

The most important aspect for nailing this technique is shooting at the right time of day, that is, earlier or later in the day when the sun is lower in the sky. It doesn’t have to be golden hour or close to sunrise/sunset, but it helps. Position the sun behind your subject in a similar manner to how you might position a hair light in traditional studio portraiture.

You want to try to avoid lens flare. You can do this by using your subject or another object to block the sun from directly hitting your lens. You can also use a lens hood to help in this.

Next, you want to use your strobe as your key light. Using a light modifier will further help you shape the light how you want. Remember that this is about using and balancing the light from the sun, not about overpowering it so you don’t need a super-powerful strobe, a speedlight will actually work, although typically I like to use my AD200 inside a Photek Softlighter.

Typically when shooting with flash outdoors you want to set your exposure for the background and balance the ambient light first. Remember shutter speed controls the ambient, aperture controls the flash. Once you have the exposure you want you can bring in the key light (the strobe) and choose the aperture you want and adjust the flash power accordingly.

Of course, you can shoot backlit portraits without an additional flash, but then in order to get the subject lit bright enough you either need to use a reflector or you’ll be blowing out the background. With the flash technique, you can balance the background exposure with the subject, creating a beautiful dynamic image with catchlights in the eyes.

Once you get the hang of it it’s a simple technique and something I use a lot when shooting portraits in the golden hour. Here’s an example using the low angle of the sun just before sunset to light up the hair.

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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