Use flash to highlight your outdoor portraits

Outdoor Flash Portrait

Words by Will Cheung

Many photographers only turn on their flashgun when it’s dark, but there’s a very strong case for using flash on all your outdoor portraits. This particularly applies at this time of year when the sun’s high in the sky and eye sockets become pools of unfathomable blackness. A burst of flash will reveal your subject’s eyes and soften shadows all round, so it’s definitely a good thing and will improve your pictures.

How you deliver this blip of flash is the challenge. Too much and the result will look horrible, too little and you might as well not bother. You need that happy medium where there’s enough light to lighten the shadows but without it being too obvious.

The basic technique of fill-in flash is pretty straightforward and with the instant feedback of digital capture, you know immediately when you have got it right or when you have to adjust camera or flash output settings. Before going into the technique side in more detail let’s first consider the kit you need.

Most SLRs have an integral flash, which normally pops up when the camera detects there’s not much light around and that flash is needed. In this technique, there’s plenty of light so you may well have to pop it up manually.

Such flash units have several disadvantages – high risk of red-eye, poor modelling and low power – but they are hugely convenient and as they’re built into the camera, you’ll never have to scrabble around to find one. Also, there’s no need to worry about the right cables or even setting the correct shutter speed, because it’s all done for you. To be fair, used within three or four metres of the subject and with a wide lens aperture, an integral flash is fine, but introduce more distant subjects or smaller lens apertures and it’ll soon start to run out of oomph.

This is where a separate flashgun that you can mount on the camera or a bracket comes into its own. Flashguns are available from the camera makers as well as the independents such as Metz, Sigma and Sunpak.

A separate flashgun holds several key advantages over an integral gun. In the first place it isn’t fixed in place so you can put it on a bracket or, with a suitable lead, on a stand. Some top-end models can be used wirelessly with several units working together as a team.

There’s also typically more power available. An integral flash will have a Guide Number of 12 or 13 at ISO 100/metres, but separate guns can be several times that which gives you a greater working range and the option of using smaller apertures.

Then there’s the ability to creatively modify light output to a degree not possible on an integral flash. You can, for example, bounce light off a white ceiling or fit an accessory like a Sto-fen diffuser or a Gary Fong WhaleTail to alter the character of the light hitting the subject.

Many cameras have a fill-in mode and this will take into account the existing light so you get a perfect daylight exposure and enough flash to fill in the shadows. Just do a test with default settings and check out the result. If there’s too much flash adjust the flash exposure compensation control to -1 or -2 and try again; if the flash is barely detectable dial in +1 or more. I’ve found most modern cameras’ auto fill-in flash feature works acceptably well without any help, just a little fine-tuning is required to get perfect results time after time.

Moving on to separate flashguns, there are so many combinations possible here that you need to check the instructions for fill-in operation and again do some test shots to see the effect.

I normally use the flashgun in auto TTL mode with the camera in manual or aperture-priority AE. In aperture-priority, the camera will set the correct flash sync speed; using manual, you’ll need to keep an eye on this as it’s all too easy to set too fast a shutter speed.

Achieving decent fill-in flash pictures is fairly straightforward. On your part all that’s needed is a willingness to experiment to fine-tune the results. And this is just the beginning of mixing flash and daylight so you should take it further and start getting all creative.

A popular technique among pro portrait photographers is to use flash to light the subject and set an aperture for flash output but meter for the background, perhaps deliberately underexposing it with a fast shutter speed. A typical grey sky can get very moody.

It’s a technique that needs practice and is limited by the camera’s flash sync speed. For example, if your SLR syncs at 1/125sec that’s not fast enough to correctly expose a bright background. In practice, this means you’re limited to darker backgrounds which require longer exposure, like the image to the right. The twilight means you can set 1/8sec or 1/15sec to expose for the background and an aperture to suit the flash. Give it a go and see what you can do.


On Camera Flash

The flash unit built into your SLR or compact camera is quite puny and not a great use beyond a few metres from the subject. That said, it’s incredibly useful especially when used as a supplementary light as opposed to being the sole light source.

So, it’s perfect for the fill-in flash technique when a blip of flash can add some much needed sparkle. Some cameras have a fill-in mode, which is worth trying or just pop it up and do a test shot. Usually the camera will pump out too much flash and the effect can be too much. If this is the case, use the flash exposure compensation feature and set -1 or, as in this example, -2 to cut down the amount of flash fired. You can see in this pair of shots of our model Laurita how much warmer the flash image is. Both were shot as Raw, converted to TIFF using default settings.


Flash Accessories

There’s a mass of gadgets on the market to modify the light output of a camera flashgun. For example, Sto-fen, Lumiquest and Lastolite Ezybox, to name just three brands. Here we tried the Gary Fong WhaleTail. It’s imported into the UK by BBJ Imports (phone 07812 161795, bbjimports.com). We used the Reporter Basic.

The WhaleTail was used on a Canon Speedlite 550EX flashgun. Of course, the flash could have been used ‘naked’, but adding a diffuser produces a softer, more flattering light while still giving attractive catchlights. The camera and flashgun were left in auto TTL operation and for my taste the default setting gave slightly too much light. The flashgun’s power can be reduced to give a more subtle effect. It’s a matter of taste, but I prefer the flash exposure reduced by two stops.

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  1. To get great results when using flash, you can't beat getting to know how your camera, lenses and flashgun work individually, and then taking the time to learn how they talk to and interact with each other.
    When you invest in a camera system and all accessories i.e. lenses and flashguns are the same brand, you get fewer problems with regards getting great flash and fill-in flash results. In the current climate owning the aforementioned kit can be of reach, financially! Not all is lost however, as

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:24:09

  2. I own a Canon body, Canon lenses and a Canon Flash gun, so I simply select ETTL mode on the gun and most times let the camera do the rest.
    Pic modes have a bearing on whether you get a good result too. On the 40D, fill-in flash is activated through using the TV and AV modes, giving natural results almost every time. But beware of photography subjects against brightly lit backgrounds - your camera and flash may struggle to give you the results you'd like.

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:25:04

  3. When in manual mode, the 430 EX Canon flash gives all its power to the scene, at times empting it's capacitor in a single flash. This can be tough on alkaline batteries and can also slow you down photographically, as you wait for the batteries to recharge. Nickel metal hydride batteries are not only rechargeable, but are more consistent to work with, so it's worth investing in a few sets.
    Using flash in manual mode on the 40D can at times be harsh, but you should always remember that flash light is

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:27:32

  4. Take time also, to learn what effect changing the ISO setting on your camera has when using flash. You can drastically improve the distance the flashlight travels by increasing the ISO. This works especially well for interior photography where you want to keep the ambience of the natural light, but add a little extra flash light.
    And lastly, if you can't eradicate red-eye when taking pictures at a party, your camera settings or flash may not be the culprit. Alcohol dilates pupils so even the pre-flas

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:27:59

  5. Seems my comments have been 'chopped'. Here are the missing end sentences:

    Not all is lost however, as you can still achieve good results with 3rd party lenses and guns, as long as you are aware of their limits and make time, again, to learn how they work with your camera.

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:30:47

  6. And...

    'you should always remember that flash light is...' just that, so don't expect ambience! Manual mode is great however, for that 'wedding doorway shot' when you don't want to over-expose the outside background beyond the door. Manually meter and set your camera for the background, then illuminate the foreground with flash - it's a winner every time.

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:33:23

  7. And the final 'chopped' comment...

    Alcohol dilates pupils so even the pre-flash flash won't help - your subject may simply be too sozzled to allow you to get a shot without red-eye. Don't fear, even this scenario is fixable by simply 'burning' the red eye in Photoshop.

    Happy flashing!

    Comment made by: angelaadamsuk
    14.05.09 16:34:38

  8. hi, great article! but where are the example photos referred to in the text?

    Comment made by: gijap
    10.09.09 23:44:54

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