In my new book Shoot to Thrill I talk about my love/hate relationship with an overcast sky. This week I am sharing with you a chapter from the book on how to use speedlights to create beautiful directional light on an overcast day. The chapter includes a lighting diagram and a few pointers on how to accentuate a dramatic pose.
Throughout the book I use the words “speedlights” and “flashes” interchangeably, and both terms refer to the common battery-powered flashgun. (Some flash systems, Canon for instance, use the word “speedlite” for its flashes.)
Shoot to Thrill — Section Two – Speedlights in Action
Madonna of the Rocks
Work with what nature gives you
At some point, early in every photographer’s career, one hears that the best outdoor light can be found on overcast days. Then, as we advance in our mastery of light and portraiture, we learn that this sentiment is basically just rubbish. True, the overcast skies do diffuse the light the harsh sun. Unfortunately, all of this diffuse light is coming straight down at our portrait subjects. Without any light augmentation, we are left with low contrast imagery and raccoon-eyed subjects. Yuck.
I was faced with the aforementioned lighting scenario on this wedding day. The bride really wanted portraits by the water, and we are blessed with beautiful lakes in my home base of Madison, Wisconsin.
If I were a so-called “natural light photographer” I would have needed to use a reflector to create some semblance of light direction and contrast in the portrait. Or I could have just exposed for the face. However, this would still have left the sky brighter than the subject. It would have dwindled away in whitish nothingness, rather than being the dramatic background that I envisioned. Fortunately, I am inclined to bend light to my will and to create light where it is needed – and it was definitely needed here.
Knowing that Adrienne, the bride, had a background in dance, I was able to coax her into a back-bend pose that was appropriate to the look I envisioned.
A Profile in Lighting
The next step was to light it in a way that would simulate a stray shaft of sunlight reaching down to embrace her.
In order to provide proper, classic profile lighting, I had my assistant, Olivia, hold two speedlights on a light stand out over the water and aimed back at Adrienne. I lay down on the sidewalk and shot up toward Adrienne to accentuate the dramatic pose and to capture more of the sky.
Both of the off-camera speedlights were triggered using the Radio Popper PX system. My on-camera flash was set to master and fired in the HHS (high-speed sync) mode, adding some fill light to help open up the detail on the dress.
I used Nik Color Efex Pro’s Tonal Contrast filter in postproduction to help pull out more detail in the dress and sky. The next step was to light it in a way that would simulate a stray shaft of sunlight reaching down to embrace her.
Camera: Canon 5D MKII with Canon 24-105 L IS lens set to 24 mm
Exposure: 1/2000 second, f/4, ISO 100 (aperture priority)
Lighting: Canon 580 EX II speedlight on-camera set to master (fired as fill) with RadioPopper PX transmitter. Two Canon 580 EXII speedlights off-camera set to slave (group A) and fired with RadioPopper PX receivers.
 If you’re not familiar with HHS (high-speed) sync, the topic is covered in Section 1 – Core Concepts of my book Shoot to Thrill.