How to simulate sunshine :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to simulate sunshine

by David Peterson 0 comments

There's a reason why golden hour photos tend to be more pleasing than photos shot at other times of the day, and it's not just the soft light and gradual transition between shadows and highlights. People love golden hour photographs because they're warm. That orange light makes us feel as if we are standing out in the sun ourselves, and the sun is one of those universally appreciated sources of energy. It's no cliché to say that the sun is life-giving, without it, the world would be a bleak and terrible place indeed. We love the sunlight because it's the light that nourishes and sustains us, and as such we are drawn to golden hour photographs because no other sort of photograph reproduces the sun in quite the same way.

Now here's a fun fact for you: you don't have to wait until the golden hour to capture that warm, sunny feeling in your photographs. You can even do it indoors, or on an overcast day. Read on to find out how.

[ Top image Peach Blossom in Artificial Sunlight / Pfirsichblüte im künstlichen Sonnenlicht by Flickr user bernhard.friess]

What you need

To replicate sunshine in an indoor studio, you need a direct source of light such as a clamp light with a bare bulb. Make sure that the bulb is daylight balanced--if you're not sure, consult the packaging. Most hardware stores will sell bulbs clearly marked as "daylight balanced," so if you're using a non-studio light fixture, make sure you're buying the right kind of light to put in it.

The sun breaks through the clouds

Because you're going to be simulating the sun breaking through the clouds, you need to have a piece of diffuse material between your bare lightbulb and your subject. But you want that piece of diffuse material to be something you don't mind destroying, such as a white bedsheet you picked up from a thrift store or a piece of drafter's vellum. Poke a hole in the piece of vellum or bedsheet, and you have a simulated version of the sunshine shining through the clouds.

Remember you're going to be simulating the sun during the golden hour, so you want your lamp to be placed at a low angle relative to your subject.

Using strobe outdoors

You can use your flash to simulate the golden hour indoors or outdoors—the key is to place a colored gel (choose a CTO or "color temperature orange" gel) over your flash and position it in a way that it creates long shadows, of the sort that are created during the golden hour. Start by metering the scene, and then add three stops of negative exposure compensation. If you shoot the images with those settings you will get a radically underexposed photo, but you're not going to start stop there. The negative exposure compensation just serves to reduce the impact of the ambient light, replacing it with the light from your flash. The CTO gel is a good simulation of golden hour color, and the angle of your flash (placed low relative to your subject) will create longer shadows. Remember to choose an angle that is roughly equivalent to where the sun would be during the golden hour. You will need to use a remote trigger for your flash so that you can fire it off-camera—although you can simulate the color of light using an onboard flash with a CTO gel, you're not going to get the full golden hour effect if you can't see the shadows, which is what will happen if you use your flash on-camera.

  • Olympus E-M1
  • 100
  • f/3.2
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 12 mm

Lime Kiln sunset by Flickr user Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits

The golden hour is also associated with lens flare, which can really add a feeling of authenticity to your simulated golden hour photos. To add lens flare, place a bare light bulb directly behind your subject to simulate the look of the setting sun in the frame. Use your flash, too, with a CTO gel (you will only need one with about 1/4 strength, which should be enough to provide to the correct tint to the image). Alternately, you can just use flash alone--place the flash directly behind your subject and take a test shot at reduced power. Check out your results on your camera's screen, then take another shot at higher power. Keep raising the power for consecutive shots until you get the look that you want.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 100
  • f/11.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 18 mm

September 6th 2008 - Meanwhile, Back on the Farm... by Flickr user Stephen Poff

Now I know what you're thinking--if I put my flash behind my subject, so that the light appears in the image, won't the light stand be in the shot, too? The answer is yes--so if you're not someone who is comfortable in post-processing this probably isn't a technique you will want to try. That light stand will need to be cloned out of the image after the fact, so try not to place the light stand in front of something that will make your job more difficult. A highly irregular background is going to be more difficult to clone in than a solid color like a grassy field or the blue sky, so think carefully about the placement of that light stand (and the placement of your subjects, too).

You can also use this technique to improve the light coming through a window—let's say you've got a beautiful window in your house but the sun doesn't shine through it during the golden hour. You can set your strobe up just outside the window and it use it to simulate golden hour light.


Let's say you don't really want to commit to using strobe or a bare lightbulb to create this look—you can also simulate golden hour light using a gold reflector. Just take care not to attempt to this in bright sunlight because you may get an unnatural look (I've heard it described as a "radioactive glow")—instead, reserve the use of the gold reflector for an overcast day, or for a subject who is in the shade. You can also use the gold reflector in a situation where there is a combination of direct sunlight and shadow, but make sure that you always place the reflector in the shade so that you're not bouncing direct sunlight on to your subject, because that's what's going to produce that unattractive, unnatural glow.

Direct sun

Now what if you want to re-create the hard look of direct sunlight? Wait, why would you want to do that? If you read my other tutorials you may have noticed I try to steer you away from shooting in direct overhead sunlight because it tends to be so harsh, and it creates unwanted shadows on your subject's face. The good news is if you try to simulate the look of bright sunshine in the studio you can get the best of both worlds. You can simulate that sunny, outdoors-on-a-beautiful-blue-day look without any of undesirable effects such as raccoon eyes. Try using a simple bare light bulb placed at a 45 degree angle to your subject on either the left or right side, approximately eight or so feet away. The light should be above the subject — typically the higher the better, say 10 to 12 feet. This is going to simulate the natural position of the sun in the afternoon or mid morning.

  • Sony DSLR-A700
  • 800
  • f/2.8
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 18 mm

Project Conquer My Camera - Day 22 - Photo 137 by Flickr user kenjipunzalan {}

Remember that like direct sunlight, hard light can look pretty terrible if the shadows are falling in all the wrong places, so make sure you tweak and retweak until you find something that looks good. You may need to adjust the brightness of that single light bulb by selecting a bulb with a lower wattage, or if it's a studio light by setting it to half power. And just like you would in the real great outdoors, consider using a reflector to fill in the shadows. To simulate a more mid-day look you can use a white reflector, or you could also try a gold reflector though you want to make sure to use it sparingly. Any bright, reflected gold light falling directly on your subject may give her that unnatural, radioactive glow.

When all else fails you can simulate the look of the golden hour with a little clever post-processing—start by using the lens flare filter to simulate that flare you get at sunset, but remember that too much lens flare can look fake, and most viewers will notice. Go for subtle rather than obvious. Then you'll need to warm up the tones—you can do this with the color temperature slider. Simply move the slider to the warmer side of the spectrum and pay attention to what happens to your photograph. Again, don't go overboard because the image will start to look pretty unnatural, instead try to create just enough color that the average user will think "golden hour" without also thinking "fake golden hour."


Of course nothing can substitute for the actual golden hour, and you should try to shoot using real sunlight whenever possible. But sometimes the weather just won't allow you to get out there, and sometimes the event you're photographing just wasn't planned for the correct time of day. You can use tools from basic to complicated to achieve a similar effect—the only limitation is your willingness to experiment. I recommend trying all of the techniques outlined above in different conditions and at different times of the day until you hit on the one that seems to work best for you, and that you are most comfortable with. From there, focus on that one technique and keep refining it until you're consistently capturing images with a convincing golden hour glow.


  1. Indoors: What you need
    • Clamp lamp
    • A piece of diffuse material
  2. Outdoors: What you need
    • A color temperature orange gel
    • An off-camera flash
  3. Adding a golden hour glow at other times of day
    • Add three stops of exposure compensation
    • Use a CTO gel on your flash
    • Place a bare bulb behind your subject to create lens flare
    • Use a gold reflector
  4. Simulating direct sun
    • Use a bare bulb at a 45 degree angle
    • Place your bulb up high
    • Fill in the shadows with a reflector
  5. Post processing
    • Add lens flare in post processing
    • Change the color temperature

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.