Photography Tutorial: Sunset self-portraits using off-camera fill-flash


Getting creative with random kids in Bali… I found myself alone on the west coast of Bali with time to kill. If you’ve been to the island, you will know that every single sunset is spectacular: vibrant, detailed, textured. I have a camera & an off-camera flash… time to play!

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Exposing for the sky at sunset will make your foreground subjects silhouette

Silhouettes are great. Their shapes can be simple and distinct, and allowing your subject to go completely dark to expose for the sunset means the colors will remain rich and saturated. You’ll retain the details in the sky and present a more accurate mood. However, if you want to get the detail of the person in the foreground, you can either create a HDR image with multiple photos, or, use a flash to fill in your shadows.

The light was changing rapidly and a local crowd gathered to watch me muck around with a number of setups. This kid (top) wandered into my frame, so I picked him up to use him as a prop! This photo would be a silhouette if not for the flash, so if you’re interested, here’s how you would accomplish a shot like this:

  1. Set your camera to manual exposure, and place it on a tripod. Make sure you are shooting RAW instead of JPEG so you have maximum latitude in this high contrast setting.
  2. Adjust your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed until you have a correct exposure for the sunset. My settings here happen to be ISO400, f8, 4sec.
  3. I’ve set the focus manually to a spot I marked in the sand, and f8 will keep the image sharp so I have a little latitude to move around.
  4. Place your flash to the left or right of camera to get more shapely shadows. You’ll need a wireless trigger on your camera to trip the off-camera flash. Put your flash in manual mode, and test out how much power output you need to expose the subject.
  5. I have a remote shutter trigger in my right hand on a 2 sec delay. This allowed me time to pick up the kid before the camera fired.
  6. Because the burst of the flash is so instantaneous, the kid and I are sharp even though we’re moving. The black shadow beneath me is the trail of my silhouette over the remaining 4 seconds the shutter was open to expose for the sky – basically me putting the bewildered little guy back on the sand and returning him to his mother.

I’ll write another post soon about how to shoot a similar setup during daylight, as there are some basic principles you can follow to get your settings in the ballpark before fine tuning for the particular environment.

To finish off, here is the actual image I was going for… something I could use on a website to illustrate a photographer in action in a dramatic location (despite that – if you know anything about speedlites – I’m “adjusting” the wrong side of the panel, and, really, you should never look into a firing strobe in the first place….). But it pictoralizes a “behind-the-scenes” nonetheless.

Setting a speedlite to manual power to compensate for an exposure set for the sunset


Comments (2)

  1. Megan

    Great tips David! Can’t wait to play around with this, it creates some really dramatic photos! Thanks for the advice, I look forward to reading your next post!

    Reply