Flash Photography Techniques
Bouncing your flash ~ On-camera flash outdoors ~ Exposure metering
Using on-camera flash outdoors
Speaking very broadly, there are two ways of using on-camera flash outside – either as:
– a slight fill-flash, or as
– a brute light source to lift the shadow areas of a subject to the same level as the sunlit areas.
Of course, in between that, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities, but for simplicity of explanation, we will concentrate here on those two scenarios.
Metering correctly for ambient light is key here. It is important that you understand how shutter speed, aperture and ISO inter-relate. Then it becomes as simple as juggling the three inter-dependent controls – shutter speed, aperture and iso- and adding flash. TTL is most likely the easiest initially.
Here are our options with outdoor portrait lighting:
There, in a nutshell, we have three of our options when photographing portraits outside in bright light.
If I am limited and can’t use additional lighting, then the simplest is to have my subjects turn their back to the sun (or bright light). This way there is no squinting, and there is usually nice open light on my subject. It’s a very good work-around.
If I need to balance the exposure for my subject and the background, then I need to use additional lighting. Direct, on-camera flash does the job … but doesn’t look as good as the off-camera light which gives us directional light.
So, where possible, I will go for Off-Camera Flash (preferably diffused). But, in a pinch, direct on-camera flash might have to do. And this is what we are going to look at with the example images in this tutorial:
Direction & Quality of Light
I wanted to distill the essence of what we, as photographers, work with – light! Before we can truly grasp on-camera flash and off-camera flash, and really, any kind of photography, we have to be aware of the direction and quality of light. We need to observe the light that we have, and then decide how best to use it, or enhance it.
With this book, I try my best to share those “aha!” moments with you, and I do believe this book can make a difference to your photography.
The book is available on Amazon USA and Amazon UK, or can be ordered through Barnes & Nobles and other bookstores. The book is also available on the Apple iBook Store, as well as Amazon Kindle.
A.) On-camera fill-flash
The following photos are really simple in their execution. I metered correctly for the available light on my subject, Adrienne, and then shot with flash straight on – but my flash exposure compensation was dialed down.
The idea here is to just use the flash to lift the shadows, and avoid shadows under the subject’s eyebrows. The flash should ideally be imperceptible, and is really only used as fill-light.
Fill-flash will help you control the contrast in your scenes and on your subjects. When doing so it’s important to maintain a good relationship between the ambient light and the flash. If you do so, the image could look quite natural — almost as if flash was not used at all.
Here I used a bit of fill-flash at -1 FEC. I could’ve used other settings for the flash exposure compensation (FEC) as well. Check this article – On-camera TTL fill-flash – for further detailed explanation with examples.
With the left-hand image, I used maximum flash sync speed. There’s a specific reason for that, which is explained in that linked tutorial. For the right-hand image, I went into high-speed flash sync (HSS) to get that shallow depth-of-field.
But images had direct, on-camera flash as fill light. I don’t often use a diffuser of any kind when I shoot outside with direct flash (as fill flash). The reason is that we only get softer light by creating a much larger light source. Using a generic light modifier on the front of the flash does not create a larger light source. It is therefore just simpler to use the flash directly—straight-on and without a diffuser — and dial my flash compensation down. Very often I work around -2 or -3 EV compensation on my flash.
If you prefer to use a small softbox on your flash, then it will definitely help in minimizing that hard flash shadow on your subject. Here you have to balance the need to work with less cumbersome gear, or have a (possibly incremental) change in how flattering the light of your flash appears.
On-Camera Flash Photography – revised edition
This book is explains a cohesive and thorough approach to getting the best from your on-camera speedlight.
Particular care was taken to present it all with a logical flow that will help any photographer attain a better understanding of flash photography.
You can either purchase a copy via Amazon USA and Amazon UK, or can be ordered through Barnes & Nobles and other bookstores. The book is also available on the Apple iBook Store, as well as Amazon Kindle. Also check out the Amazon Kindle store.
Learn more about how the cover image was shot.
B.) On-camera flash outdoors, as main source of light
With the examples above, we used subtle fill-flash, so the flash, even though direct and un-diffused, wouldn’t be all that noticeable. But we often find ourselves in situations where we have to rely on direct on-camera flash outdoors.
Let’s look at another example. Here I purposely positioned Adrienne part-way under an arch of this building, so that the light is uneven on her. No splashes of sunshine on her, just uneven and unflattering light on her face.
Direct, on-camera fill-flash immediately improves how this simple portait looks. Here I used direct on-camera flash without diffusion. A small softbox on the flash would’ve been helpful here in minimizing the shadow of the flash, but as it is, even direct fill-flash helps considerably in improving the photo.
In this specific scenario, the most important setting was the shutter speed of 1/250 second (the maximum flash-sync speed for this specific camera). The other two settings, ISO and aperture, hinged on the choice of shutter speed, taking the ambient light into account. The reason for this is that I was working in bright conditions and wanted the most efficient use of my flash.
This photo was taken using full power manual flash to match the sun-lit background. I stood approximately 10 feet away from Adrienne, knowing that the flash’s maximum output would allow f/11 at 10 feet. This maximum output is indicated by the flash’s Guide Number. GN = distance * f-stop
The Guide Number of your flash is an indication of the power of your flash – how much light it can deliver. Your flash’s Guide Number (GN) is determined at 100 ISO, when it gives correct exposure at a certain distance, multiplied by the f-stop. It sounds like a crazy way to just come up with a number, but it works for us!
For a more in-depth discussion of how to use the Guide Number in bright daylight:
Applying the Sunny 16 Rule & Flash Guide Number.
Video tutorials to help you with flash photography
If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.
next section: Exposure metering
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Books by Neil van Niekerk
Using a flash or speedlight on-camera can be daunting at first. This was certainly how I felt when I first purchased my Nikon speedlight. My biggest worry was calculating all the light ratios involved to get a proper exposure as you cannot take into account the actual flash output when metering in-camera. I was also nervous about using a light meter – all that trial and error and faffing, the thought of it all used to make me quake in my boots and swear I’d forever be a natural light photographer. But that was not to be, thankfully.
My main reservation about using flash is the harshness of the light. I hate the “flashed” look on people’s faces, the shadows under the jaws, the bright circular catchlights right in the middle of the iris. As well, the flatness of the face with the direct flash obliterating all possibility of sculpting shadows on the face.
But I live in London where it rains quite a bit, it’s hardly sunny at all, and half the year is cold. All these factors affect natural light and I felt I just had to put aside my reservations and take the leap. And I’m so glad I did.
Let me share with you how I use flash to help me achieve the look I am after and without having to do the mental calculations of light ratios!
Some notes about using flash
As photographers, we have to learn a host of technical knowledge on top of our creative vision. That involves a lot of trial and error to find which methods work for you. It’s no different when it comes to camera settings and flash power.
We know that we can adjust the three factors in the exposure triangle to get the right exposure for our intended look. For example, if you want a darker background with less ambient light, you can increase your speed while keeping the aperture and ISO the same. But if you want ambient light in the background showing through with less dark shadows, you can lower your speed instead while still keeping the aperture the same.
Similarly, if you want a deeper depth of field at a smaller aperture, you may need to increase your ISO and adjust your speed. But keeping the same aperture, if you want to minimize any noise at high ISO, you could lower your speed instead.
Adding the flash power as a 4th factor is no different. You may choose to keep adjusting your flash power to get your desired exposure, or like me, you may want to leave your flash power at a constant unless the changes in light requirement are dramatic, and adjust the exposure triangle instead. As long as you have ample understanding of the basics of exposure, play around with what works best for you that will benefit your efficiency and workflow as a photographer as well as keeping consistent with your style.
#1 Put a diffuser on the flash
It may only be a little plastic thing that goes on top the flash head but I find it makes a difference. The light is less harsh – I know many will disagree about whether it softens the light or not as that is mainly due to the size of light and distance to subject – but I notice a softness from a diffused flash head compared to a bare one.
Left: without a diffuser. Right: with a diffuser.
I only use a flash bare and pointed towards the camera when I am using it as a kicker light and want starburst effects coming from it.
#2 Control the flash manually
Set your flash to manual and choose the power. I’m usually at 1/32 or 1/16 and leave it there. Adjust the flash power only when absolutely necessary. Instead, make the frequent necessary adjustments to your camera settings.
Now I know there are many big fans of ETTL / TTL mode out there. I have tried it too. However, I have gone back to Manual as I find the TTL does not give me the look I want. Essentially, I only want my flash to be a fill light, not the main light and never too strong so that you can see a huge difference between the light coming from the flash and the ambient light. The ETTL / TTL mode is too smart for my needs and increases the output to a pretty high level if it senses that the ambient light is too weak, and vice versa. I felt I’d get an inconsistent output of light for the look I am after although that output may be “correct” in terms of the calculations.
For portraits, I find that the greater the contrast between the dark background and the illumination of the subject with a flash gun, the more I dislike the image. For dancing shots (like at a wedding), however, where I want to illuminate the subject well and freeze the action, I DO point my flash directly at the subject, stop down my aperture to between f/5.6 and f/8 and lower my shutter speed between 1/20th and 1/60th in order to capture ambient light and light trails or background blurring to give the effect of movement.
This image was created using a bare bulb flash (no diffuser) located behind and pointing directly at the couple (off-camera flash). I also had a second flash on-camera with a diffuser, and the flash aimed upward.
This image was created with a diffused flash pointed directly at the couple (camera in front of the couple, flash on-camera) while they were dancing. The motion blur was created by using a slow shutter speed and “dragging the shutter” after the flash has fired.
What I’m after is always a natural look, which, depending on where the main light is coming from, may not be achieved well without some kind of fill or reflected light to illuminate areas that are too dark for my intentions. This is the reason why I always bounce or angle my flash gun for most scenarios other than dancing as explained above.
#3 Bounce it
On some newer models, there is also a little white pull-out bounce card that is extremely useful if your ceilings are too high for the light to bounce off or you just want to point reflected light in a particular direction. When I shoot weddings where the rooms have very high ceilings or dark beams and ceilings. So I pull out the bounce card and use it to deflect the light coming from the flash. The handy swivel action helps me direct the reflected light wherever I want it to go.
My speedlight with the white bounce card extended.
As an aside, I use this setup for off-camera flash too. When I’m putting two speedlights opposite each other in a room to provide directional light during speeches, I point the flash heads upwards and pull out the diffuser so that all the reflected light is pointed inwards towards the center of the room.
#4 Angle it
The head of most speedlights can swivel right and left up to 90 degrees each way and forward and upward to 90 degrees in incremental angles. It is an awesome functionality that you should take advantage of especially for fill flash.
In the photos below, bright sunlight was coming from camera right at 45 degrees on a bright day. All I wanted was a bit of fill flash on their shadowed faces, just enough to lift the shadows a tad. What I really wanted to avoid was for the image to look like there was another light source other than that from the sun. To achieve this, I angled my speedlight upwards towards the back by one increment.
Flash as a fill light
As you can see, these photos below have very strong sunlight coming directly at the subjects and towards the camera, a very strong backlit light. It is extremely difficult to overpower this type of light without using a strong flash. What I did was angle myself slightly to one side and pointed my flash directly at the subjects’ faces to try and counteract the sunlight.
This is when I adjust my flash power and increase it accordingly. The result is not as clean and sharp as if I had a big softbox firing at 70% ratio to the sun’s power but it still shows the faces clearly enough with some diffused hazy light in the background, which was also my intention for these shots.
Compare the two images below. The one on the left was taken in a big open space with a dense foliage background which blocked the light. There was enough light here to illuminate their faces that I could have done away with the flash altogether, but I pointed the flash backward to add just a tiny bit of light over my head. I don’t think it made a huge difference but it made me feel better and consistent!
The image on the right was taken in a shaded open area surrounded by tall trees which diffused the light coming from the background. Without the trees, it would have had the unfiltered effect as above, but despite the trees, this is still very much a backlit position as the background was very bright still. More fill light was needed there so I pointed the speedlight slightly upwards, with one increment down towards the subjects but not directly at their faces.
You can see the same flash angle as above on these close-up portraits below.
Make it moody
In the same spot as above, I wanted a look that was a little moodier than those close-ups so I pointed the speedlight directly upwards this time. So although their faces are still amply lit up, the image to feels like they are being enveloped by the diffused light behind them.
The couple wanted a shot showing the lake and the trees in the far distance. The distance was too great to get the couple and the background sharp enough without using a really small aperture and a lot of artificial light (flash). Note that we were also in the shaded part of the lake which made it more difficult. I decided therefore that I would take a cozy shot that focused mainly on the background. The couple looking towards the trees, although they are not the lit focal point, they are still clearly visible and sharp. I pointed the speedlight slightly forwards to give them just a hint of light and shot with a small aperture.
Contrast the top image below to the photo directly underneath it where the depth of field has changed massively – the background now is blurry and the couple is in focus. This had the same angle of flash, slightly forwards, but of course, my camera settings changed to a wider aperture and lower ISO to balance the exposure. Now with the couple still in the same shaded spot, the angled flash was clearly essential here. Had I pointed the flash directly to their faces, it would have been too obvious and would kill the natural light ambiance that I was aiming for.
For this ring shot below, we sat on a bench with the sunlight coming from camera left. I put the ring on my phone to get a dark background and a nice reflection. With ring shots, I always stop down to at least f/7 with a macro lens. Therefore I need to make sure there is plenty of light for the shot as macro lenses tend to suck light.
I also always use a speedlight pointed directly opposite the main light. So in this case where the light is at camera left at 8 o’clock (if you’re looking at a clock face with the diamond at 6 o’clock), I swiveled my flash head to the opposite at around 4 o’clock to give off a bit of reflected light on the right side of the ring.
Likewise, on the photo below, you can clearly see where the sunlight is coming from so I pointed my speedlight slightly upwards to camera left, opposite the sunlight. This angle helped me achieve a gradual decrease of light from right to left as opposed to a dramatic one where you can see a clear cut-off from light to dark.
Your turn to try doing fill flash
If you haven’t tried using flash like this before, I encourage you to do so. Experiment and see how it could work for you. You don’t need to learn the lighting ratios and calculations off by heart to be able to get images you are after, although that could be handy.
Sometimes all you need is confidence, common sense, and a willingness to try. I hope you found this little tutorial useful. If you have more tips, share them in the comments below.