Use flash to highlight your outdoor portraits
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.
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.
Stay in bed in the summer months and you'll be missing shots like this. Chris Herring uses dawn light to shoot windmills, but his advice applies to any early morning subject
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