# What flash guide number do I need to underexpose a "sunny" background?

I'm familiar with the maths behind flash usage (guide numbers, etc.). Here's a more practical question that doesn't yet seem to have an answer on photo.se:

Consider a subject, outdoors, on a regular "sunny 16" day (EV 15). Assume you've rated your film @100. For some reason, you want to seperate your subject from the background by underexposing the latter by, say, two stops. Say, f/11 & 1/800 rather than f/16 & 1/100. Now in order to compensate for that underexposure, you want to use a flash on your subject to get it back to EV 15.

What guide number would the flash have to have for that purpose?

GN = d * f

If the subject were at a distance of 2.5m, a GN 40 flash would provide enough light for a f/16 & 1/100 exposure (in a setting that's completely dark otherwise). So using that flash on our subject would exactly double the amount of light it receives. Am I correct assuming that this in turn means we've been able to compensate for one of the two stops (EV 14), but won't be able to compensate for the remaining one?

You are correct, light is additive, so if the flash provides the same amount of illumination to the subject as the sun, and if no flash spills onto the background, then the background will be one stop darker than the subject.

To underexpose the background by 2 stops would require a flash with three times the power, guide number 70.

It's worth noting that guide numbers are useful for comparing flash brightness, but are not always useful for calculating actual light output at certain distances because modern hot-shoe flashes have optics to change the width of the beam, effectively focusing the light at further distances so the inverse square law on which the guide number is based doesn't necessarily apply.

However, from experience, I've never used a hot-shoe flash that was capable of underexposing the background by 2 stops on a bright sunny day at any sensible distance. Very high powered units have been produced in the past, but seem less popular now as high ISO performance is so much better with digital than it was with film, so people can always up the ISO (this doesn't help underexpose the background, but that's a rare use case).

The second problem with underexposing the background by 2 stops comes from the flash sync speed. Most cameras can't shoot the flash at full power with shutter speeds faster than 1/250s or 1/200s. So you wouldn't be able to shoot at f/11 & 1/800s, as per your example. You'd have to use f/22 & 1/200s, at which point diffraction can be a problem.

• Most shooters that try to 'kill the ambient' on a sunny day use a fairly strong ND filter and multiple off-camera flashes. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 6:34
• Thanks Matt for the answer and the details! You're right, the values I provided are somewhat hypothetical. Flash sync speed, though, isn't going to be much of an issue with the cameras I currently use the most (RFs and TLRs) :-). @MichaelClark That's quite an interesting use for ND filters (which, as a mainly low-speed film shooter, I haven't used at all so far). Will give it a closer look. Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 18:25

Your subject gets 1/4 of the necessary exposure from ambient light, so you need to provide 3/4. Guide numbers are proportional to the square of exposure, so you can reduce the guide number to about 87% (which is more or less the square root of 75%). Your aperture number is F11, your distance is 2.5m, so the guide number of GN27.5 can be dialed down to about GN24 because of the contribution of ambient light.

However, you specify an exposure time of 1/800s. You'll need either electronic shutter on the camera or HSS on the flash to make this work, and it's questionable whether the flash can pump out enough light in that time either way. I have an old Regula flash 740-2MFD specified to deliver GN40 at f=35mm in 1/1000s and it does deliver the bulk of its light in that time frame. But most other battery-powered flashes I have rather specify 1/200s at full power.

So you are likely better off sticking at f:16 and 1/400s, necessitating a guide number of GN35 (can your flash put this out in 1/400s?), or even f:22 and 1/200s and GN48 (and at 2.5m of distance, flash zoom is not likely going to help, particularly since modern flashes are often specified at maximum zoom).

Overpowering sunlight is not really a job modern equipment is all that good at. It might work with very short exposure time, larger apertures or ISO and HSS modes of the flash, but this kind of combination almost only works with system flashes well-matched to the camera.