Fig. 1 – This dramatic light for this shot was made by firing a gelled Speedlite through a louvered window blind.


Fig. 2 – Our set was a interior space with wood paneling and large windows. The sky outside was heavily overcast.

There are two keys to creating golden hour light with a Speedlite or strobe—gel your flash to create golden light and position it to create long, angled shadows. Both are easy to do with off-camera flash.

The first step—creating golden light—actually begins by underexposing the ambient light in the scene. As you can see below in the middle panel of Fig. 3, I pulled three stops of ambient light out by increasing my shutter speed two stops and closing the aperture down one stop. Pulling the ambient down to near black is critical. Essentially you are establishing the tone of the shadows that will fall between the slashes of golden light created by your flash.


Fig. 3 – This tryptic shows how I developed the lighting in three steps: (left) the ambient windowlight as metered by the camera, (middle) the ambient light after I dimmed it by three stops, and (right) the golden hour light I created with my gelled Speedlite. Click to see a high-res version.

My go-to gel for creating golden hour light is the CTO (Color Temperature Orange). CTO comes in several densities–called “cuts.” For this shoot, I gelled with a full-cut of CTO. When I’m trying to blend in fill-flash at sunset with real golden hour light, I’ll start with a half-cut of CTO and then change to a full-cut as the sun drops to the horizon. If you want to warm up your general flash shots just a bit without making it obvious, try a quarter- or eighth-cut CTO.

My favorite gels for Speedlites are made by Honl Photo. They are oversized—which means that I can slap them on and rip them off in a split-second—very handy when the sun is crashing into the horizon and you need to change gels. The Honl Filter Sampler Kit provides a good range of CTO cuts along with other colors that you can use for dramatic effect. You will also need a fuzzy cinch strap to wrap around the head of your Speedlite so that the Honl gels have something to grab onto.

Fig. X - CTO

Fig. 4 – CTO (Color Temperature Orange) is a great gel for creating the look of golden hour with flash.

The position of the flash outside the window is what creates the long, angled shadows. If you can, position your flash at least 15′ / 5m away from the window. In this shoot, we did not have that much space. The telltale sign is my slashes of light change angle slightly as they go down the wall. Had the light stand been twice the distance to the window than it was, this would not have been an issue.

Also, remember that golden hour light is created when the sun is close to the horizon. This imposes two additional requirements. First, you have to shoot hard light. Putting a big softbox up against the window does not create believable, hard-edged shadows on the wall. Nor does putting the flash in the same room–without an intermediary gobo to create window-like shadows. Second, the angle of the light needs to be rather flat. We know intuitively that sunlight is warmest (most golden) when the sun is close to the horizon. For this shoot, I had to dance between pushing the Speedlite up high enough to drop the shadows at an interesting angle and making my golden hour light look believable.


Fig. 5 – Notice how the flash was set too high for the window. This happened when we pushed the stand in to reposition the bottom edge of illumination on the carpet and did not angle the Speedlite down more steeply. No worries. The Speedlite had more than enough power to get the job done.

There are several ways to trigger your flash for this type of shoot. I used the Canon’s new radio-enabled Speedlite system (600EX-RT Speedlite and ST-E3-RT Transmitter) and controlled the whole system from the LCD on my camera. Simple radio triggers would have also worked–but I would have had to run to the Speedlite each time I wanted to adjust the power. This can be a huge hassle if your light stand is outside the building and the door is some distance away. Another option would have been to use an extra-long ETTL/ITTL cord to run a master Speedlite to the inside of the window and let it fire the instructions outside to the slaved Speedlite.

Working Towards The Real Hero Shots


Fig. 6 – My hero shots were made in the last 20 frames, out of nearly 160 shots.

Even when you start with a solid idea, it takes a while a while to find the weaknesses and then work through them. As you will see below in Fig. 7, my original idea was to paint Katie with a dynamic pattern of light and shadow. This seemed interesting at first. I then decided that she became lost in the shot.


Fig. 7 -My original idea–frame Katie in the pattern of light and shadow. To my eye, she became lost in the shot.

So I explored a series of lower and lower camera positions (Figs. 8 and 9). I went from standing, to sitting, and then to putting the camera on the floor. If you peek at the Lightroom gallery above, you will see that I explored a camera position by shooting several frames before I moved on. Sometimes my hero (best) shots are at the end of the shoot and sometimes I pass them by and only discover them after the shoot is over. Shooting several frames at each step helps insure that I’ll have that magic combination of expression, gesture, and nuance when the camera is in the optimal position.


Fig. 8 – By sitting on the floor, I was able to make Katie appear taller in the frame. This move went in the right direction, but I continued to think that she was lost in the shot.



Fig. 9 – By putting the camera on the floor, I was able to move Katie’s head and shoulders entirely above the light pattern. This seemed great at first. I then changed my mind and decided that she was now too tall in the frame.

Ultimately, I found the optimal spot for the camera (Fig. 10)—neither too high nor too low—so that the diagonals created by my Speedlite enhanced (rather than concealed) Katie’s strength and beauty. I especially like how the diagonal edge at the top becomes a leading line that runs through her face.


Fig. 10 – I decided that the strongest visual was to have the diagonal of the wall shadow run right behind Katie’s face. I think that this is a delicate balance–she is wrapped in the light, but not lost in it.



Fig. 11 – Once I found the right camera position–neither too high nor too low–I then focused on creating my hero shot as both a horizontal and vertical frame. You’ll find that you spend 95% of the shoot getting the details worked out and the remaining 5% making the great shots.

Want a bit of hands-on experience with this type of photography? This shoot was done during my Flash Photography workshop at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography last week. I have two other workshops this summer: Crafting Dramaitic Light With Small Strobes at Santa Fe Workshops and Canon Speedlites Demystified at Maine Media Workshops. I hope to see you out there, somewhere.


6 Responses to Crafting Dramatic Golden Hour Light With Off-Camera Flash

  1. David Nelson says:

    This is a question, I’ve tried to do this kind of set up, but I don’t get the ribbons of light, it comes out as if there were no blinds. 100% of the light is coming from my speedlight.

    • Syl Arena says:

      David – My guess is that the ambient light is filling the shadows created by your flash. The key is not to turn the flash power up. Rather, the key is to turn the ambient down. Start with a test shot the way your camera wants to meter the scene. Then, with your camera in Manual mode, dial the shutter speed three or four stops faster and take another non-flash test shot. You should have a frame that is almost or totally black. Then turn your flash on and start testing its position and then its power.

  2. liz C says:

    Very helpful article! We get a lot of overcast days out here in WA so I’ve been looking for a way to fake that wonderful golden hour light. Thanks!

  3. Chris says:

    Glad to see your health is on the upswing. Do you meter your subject to get the f stop or are using manual and to test and see what look you are looking for? Great information, thanks for your insights.

    • Syl Arena says:

      I typically shoot the flash and camera in manual mode. If shoot with the flash off through a series of test shots so that I can get the ambient light where I want it. Then I turn the flash on and run a series of test shots at various power levels. I’d do the same with a flash meter…it just gets you to the starting point a bit faster.

  4. Bruce Wilson says:

    When you PP what color temperature do you set, or, equivalently, what color temperature do you set in the camera? I’m guessing sunlight, since you want the CTO filter to add the golden tone.

    Thanks for the great article.

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