Simulating the Sun with Flash

lifestyle photo soccer

When I learned this simple trick for simulating the look of “golden hour” sunlight with flash, my life as a photographer changed for the better. Suddenly those overcast days were just an extended golden hour, providing the benefit of soft front light with the always-welcome golden back light. I’ll give you the simple breakdown so you can start using this to get that sunny look when weather doesn’t cooperate.

All of the images were made on an overcast day with no real sun. San Diego is known for good weather but we have a lot more overcast days than you would imagine, especially through May and June, so as a San Diego lifestyle photographer this trick comes in super handy.

gelled flash w/ CTO

All you need is a CTO (color temperature orange) color gel and a flash. For working on the go, I prefer to use a speedlight and a small gel fitted with velcro (try a Honl Speedstrap and a set of Honl gels, which already have the velcro.) If you’re feeling thrifty, just use any brand of gels cut to size and Scotch Tape to attach them to your light. I use a 1/2 CTO because I feel a full CTO would look too orange. You can go with your own preference here, but I recommend buying them in 1/2 or 1/4 CTO and you can always stack them if you want the light to look more orange.

You want an assistant to hold this light for you if possible, that way you can have them move just out of frame for simulated lens flare or farther out of frame for a more high contrast edge lighting.


Here is an accidental BTS with my assistant, Dave, creepin’ in the background. Nice thing about speedlights is they are lightweight enough to position at all kinds of crazy heights quickly and easily. We used a lighting pole instead of a traditional light stand because the legs of a light stand get in the assistant’s way. It’s also easier to remove the light stand in post if you happen to catch some of it in your photo.

In the above, the light stand was removed in post with a quick shift+click of the spot healing tool in Photoshop.

LFC tee on modelThese are pretty much shown “as shot” but there are things you can do in post to make the effect even stronger. Experiment with color overlays, photo filters and color balance layers to warm the background areas in post production.
couple grass lifestyle imageBy using a smaller light source from a distance we can get the shadows going toward camera much like a back lit golden hour shot. Experiment a bit with distance and diffusion.
In most of these shots, I expose for the ambient exposure and simply add the flash at relatively low power, and then play with the position. The key is to keep your shutter speed slow enough to sync with flash. If this isn’t possible, try adding a two stop ND filter to your lens to achieve a slower shutter.

Models – Weston, Haley, Bijan Hair/MUA – Cindy Rankin

Thanks for reading!