Taking portraits outdoors can be challenging when the ambient light is not ideal. Since it’s not possible to control the sun, (at least, I have not discovered how to yet,) using flash to enhance your outdoor portraits is a great option.
The thought of using flash can be a little daunting for photographers who are not used to it. In this article, I’ll show you a few helpful flash techniques to use when photographing portraits outdoors.
The Advantage of Using Flash for Outdoor Portraits
Using sunlight as your only source to illuminate your portraits outdoors does not always provide the most appropriate light. Adding flash can help you create the look you want.
On a sunny day, when the light is hard and shadows are strong, use flash to fill in the shadows. On overcast days or other times when the light is flat, you can use flash to add life to a portrait.
Light from your flash can help you create the style and mood you want for your portraits.
Balance Flash Power and Camera Settings
Using flash for outdoor portraits adds another level of complexity to the photo session. You must think about exposing for the ambient light and the flash.
First, choose the exposure settings you want on your camera. Then balance with your flash. It’s up to you how you adjust the settings for the style of portrait you want. The location and background will influence this.
Photographing a person against a bright background, it’s easy to underexpose them. By adding the right amount of flash, you can balance the light on your subject and the light in the background.
Strong shadows on a person’s face can be softened or illuminated using flash. Setting your camera’s exposure for the bright areas, adding the right amount of flash will reduce the shadows.
Starting with your camera’s exposure setting provides a good foundation. You cannot control the ambient light, so you must work with it. Once you are happy with your exposure, you can then add an appropriate amount of flash.
Choose Which Flash Mode to Use
Once you have set your exposure, adjusting your flash so it gives you the right amount of light is important. Too much or too little and your portrait will not look the way you want it to.
Much of the time the Through The Lens (TTL) mode will provide a pleasing exposure. In this mode, the flash and camera communicate with each other so the exposure is balanced.
You may prefer to use manual mode on your flash when you are not wanting balance. Maybe you want to have your subject much brighter than the background. In this case, you can set your flash to manual and control how much light it emits.
With your flash in manual mode, you may need to experiment a little to achieve the amount of output you want. The advantage of using manual flash settings is that they do not fluctuate once you set them. With TTL or Auto, the output of the flash may vary when you recompose between photos.
Built-In, On Camera and Off-Camera Flash for Portraits
Many cameras have a small built-in pop-up flash. It’s size and power output limit how practical it is. But, when you need to, use it!
I used the pop-up flash to add some fill light to this portrait. My model was standing in the shadow of the rock and the background was very bright. Had I not used fill flash the exposure between her and the background would not have been balanced.
Had I set my exposure for her, the background would render overexposed. Had I set my exposure for the background because it’s so much brighter, she would be underexposed.
I had no other flash with me, so I used the built-in flash set to TTL. It provided the right amount of light to balance the exposure nicely.
For this portrait, I set my flash on a stand to my left so it produced light from the opposite direction than the ambient light. I had a small softbox to diffuse the flash so the light is softer. The light is more pleasant, but the set up was more cumbersome.
An on-camera flash is a popular option. A mounted flash will usually have a higher output than a built-in flash. You can often control the direction the flash is pointing and have more control over its output. The main negative about using a camera mounted flash is the light comes from the same angle as your lens.
Choose the Best Tool for the Task
You’ll need to decide what level of effort you want to put into light your portraits with flash.
Your camera’s pop up flash is convenient because it’s always there. The output from this flash is harsh because it’s so small and you can’t change the direction.
An on-camera flash gives you more control and can provide a more pleasing light than a pop-up flash will. You can change the direction of the flash head and bounce it off a nearby surface to soften the light. You can also add modifiers to the flash to further control the light.
Off-camera flash requires using a stand or having someone hold your flash. It can also be more complicated to get it firing consistently. Depending on your camera system you may need additional hardware to control your flash when it’s not mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. Positioning an off-camera flash where you want it gives you much more flexibility and the ability to direct the light where you want it. You can also add bigger modifiers, like a soft-box, to your flash.
Practice Using Your Flash
The best way to learn to use your flash to enhance outdoor portraits is to practice.
Find a willing model and explain to them you want to practice. The aim of the photo session is not to create stunning portraits. This will be a bonus if it happens.
Concentrate on the combinations of your camera’s exposure settings and your flash settings. If you have modifiers for your flash, experiment with them. What difference does a clip-on diffuser make to the light? How much softer is the light when you use a small softbox with your off-camera flash.
Try things you normally wouldn’t. Use the pop-up flash. Take your flash off-camera and put it in different locations.
Make some portraits with different backgrounds, bright and dark. Practice with different flash and camera settings in each location. Do the same at different times of the day and at night.
As you practice, make some notes about what you are doing and how the light is changing. Jot down your thoughts about how different your model looks with the various setups you use.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and experiment using flash to enhance your outdoor portraits.
Kevin is a self-taught photographer with a depth of experience he loves to share with others.
Kevin started in photography working at a daily newspaper in his native New Zealand in the late 1980s. He worked for many years as a newspaper photographer before starting his own freelance business where he engaged in commercial, editorial, wedding, and portrait photography.
In 2002 Kevin moved to northern Thailand. Here he worked as a photographer and video producer. Most of his work focused on providing photos and videos to help support the work of various non-profit organisations working among the rural poor communities.
Since 2014 Kevin and his wife have taught travel photography workshops. These are now based at their rural home, where they offer bed and breakfast accommodation. Kevin has also branched into online teaching and photography writing.