Creating Sunrise Portraits with Depth

Hey guys!

Sunrise is one of my favorite times to shoot portraits.  Beautiful golden light washes over everything and the sky can turn some pretty awesome colors.  Of course, if you're shooting with only natural light, you're likely blowing out all that detail in the environment in order to properly expose for your subject.  The beauty of the environment is lost and your subject is washed out and looks flat.  While the style of that look has gotten popular over the past few years, I prefer images with a bit more contrast and punch.  Today, I'm going to show you how I use flash to retain depth and detail in sunrise portraits.


Equipment Used

  • Canon 5Dmkiii
  • Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
  • Canon 430 EXII Speedlight
  • 30'  Hot shoe cable
  • 7' Lightstand
  • Shoot through umbrella
  • Umbrella bracket

Set Up your light

Below is a diagram of my lighting setup for the above image.  Situate the sun behind the subject. Next, place the speedlite on a light stand using the umbrella bracket using the hot shoe cable to trigger.  Point the flash at the subject at a 45° angle and downward at a 45° angle.  Make sure that the if the sun is offset on one side of the subject that you offset your lights on the other side.  This will allow the light from the sun to give extra sharp contrast on the shaded side of your subject so they really pop off the background.

I use a shoot through umbrella as a modifier because it spreads the light in such a way that it blends well with the ambient light.  While it's a great modifier to use, any gust of wind will turn it into sail and the light will come crashing down onto the model.  Be smart and use a camera bag or sand bags to weigh down and secure the light stand.   


Expose for the Ambient Light

Before you turn on the flash, you want to ensure that the exposure is set to capture all the detail in the environment.  With the camera metering mode set to evaluative (Canon) or matrix (Nikon) flip your camera to Manual Mode and expose for the ambient light using the in-camera light meter.  Turn the ISO to its lowest native setting, then adjust the shutter speed and aperture until you get an exposure that retains the color in the sly.  If you do this right, the subject should be silhouetted.

There are two main things to keep in mind.  First, as the sun rises, the light will become brighter and will change pretty rapidly.  It will be necessary to readjust the ambient exposure every 10 minutes or so to compensate for those changes.  Second, while setting the ambient exposure, make sure that the shutter speed stays within the maximum flash sync speed of the camera.  If getting a proper exposure means setting the shutter speed faster than that, use the high-speed sync option on your flash.  If you're using a flash that doesn't have high speed sync capabilities and you want to maintain lower apertures, you can use a neutral density filter on your camera to reduce the amount of light coming through your lens.  This will help you keep your shutter speed within the maximum sync speed.

Add Flash to Illuminate your Subject

Now that you have a properly exposed environment, it's time to add light to illuminate the silhouetted subject.  With the flash turned on, set to manual mode, and connected to your camera via the hot shoe cable, start at 1/2 power and adjust as needed to brighten up your subject.  As with the ambient exposure, remember, the sun is rising and so the light is constantly changing and getting brighter.  As you adjust the ambient exposure every 10 minutes or so, keep in mind that you'll likely need to adjust your flash power as well.

The lighting setup is based on a foundation of using the sun as a backlight and the speedlite as a key light.  That said, you should feel free to adjust your key light to illuminate the models face.  Below are two examples of how the position of my flash was adjusted based on the pose.

That's it!  With one flash, you can create eye catching sunrise photos with depth and punch.  Now, set your alarm early, get the coffee brewing and get out there!  You just may find that sunrise is your new favorite time to shoot.