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flash for portraiture and fashion using Micro Four Thirds cameras


  • using flash for portraiture or fashion is a complex subject, the details of which you can find elsewhere
  • on this page I will be offering a few options applicable to Micro Four Thirds system
  • my preference for most flash photography (other than just fill-in flash) is to set the camera to Manual exposure:
    • set flash to either:
      • TTL Auto and set flash exposure compensation for each flash
      • manual and set flash output level according to your needs - more consistent results in a stable set up but takes more work.
    • set the aperture to give the depth of field (DOF) you desire - usually wide open aperture (eg. f/1.8 if you are using a nice portrait lens) for most portraits (although with group photos where people are at different distances this may cause some to be out of focus so you may need to choose a smaller aperture such as f/4 or f/5.6),
    • set the shutter speed to the flash sync (usually 1/160th-1/200thsec), or slower (if you want the background to become lighter).

bright sunlight issues

  • if you are shooting outdoors in bright sunlight with flash and wishing to use a wide aperture (eg. f/1.8) then there are additional issues:
    • normal flash mode will force a maximum shutter of the flash sync for the camera (1/160th-1/250th depending on the camera and flash), this will result in either:
      • very over-exposed photos if using Aperture mode or Manual mode and the aperture is set wide open
      • a very small aperture if using other modes
    • there are 2 options to address this:
      • use a polarising filter or ND filter to allow a wider aperture to be used for that shutter speed without over-exposure, or,
      • resort to Super FP / High Speed Sync flash mode but this dramatically reduces the flash output as the shutter speed becomes shorter.
        • this mode cannot be used to overpower the ambient light source if this cannot be achieved without this mode.
        • using this mode to allow faster shutter speeds than the sync speed drops your flash output faster than the ambient light exposure is affected by that same change in shutter speed
        • this mode is really about allowing wide apertures to be used with fill-in flash in bright sunlight
    • if using an Olympus camera with a non-dedicated flash, there is a 3rd workaround which may assist use of polariser filter:
      • a non-dedicated flash on an Olympus camera allows faster shutter speeds HOWEVER the catch is that the flash will not expose the entire frame
      • the top part of the frame will be increasing not lit as the shutter speed goes above the flash sync, but this may not matter if your main subject is only on the bottom lit part
      • this requires some experimentation but can be a very handy tool.

direct on-camera flash

as fill light on sunny days

  • if you must shoot a portrait with your subject in the harsh sun in the middle of the day, here are a couple of tips:
    • have the sun BEHIND your subject, this avoids your subject squinting and allows a more even lighting of their face without harsh unflattering shadows
    • to give your portrait a bit of a kick, add your direct camera flash at -1 to -2 EV flash exposure, as this will provide a sparkle in the eyes by adding catchlights, and fill in some of the shadowing under the eyebrows cast by the overhead lighting (the sky)
    • if you primarily just need the catchlights and you want shallow depth of field (DOF), then one can resort to Super FP or HSS mode to allow fast shutter speeds, but remember, this mode really cuts your flash output a lot and you may not be able to get as much fill-in light as you would like if you are at a distance from the subject or you have a rather low powered flash unit.

as main light

  • direct on-camera flash as the main lighting is the LAST resort for portraiture
  • it risks:
    • red eyes - particularly in low light when the subject's pupils are dilated
    • harsh shadows
    • harsh specular reflections from perspiration, makeup, spectacles
    • emphasising colour differences of the skin such as poorly applied makeup, coloured skin blemishes, etc
  • one can use red-eye reduction mode flash to help reduce red eye but this then creates a substantial delay in taking the shot (due to the red-eye reduction pre-flash operating to constric the pupils), and missed shots, and increases the chance the subject will blink
  • red-eyes can also be reduced by shooting in bright lighting (pupils are more constricted) or moving the flash as far from the lens axis as possible
  • direct flash emphasises colour and de-emphasises texture and thus it may work well if the subject has well applied photographic make-up
  • at events where you can't reasonably bounce the flash, try using a light modifier on the flash see

simple bounce flash

  • if you are at parties or social events where you want to get flattering portraits of your friends - AVOID using direct flash from the camera to the subject, unless they have perfect makeup and it is early in the night!
  • a bit bulkier and a touch more expensive is a bounce flash such as the Olympus FL-36(R) or FL-600R
  • these can be placed on the camera and the head rotated to bounce the light of a preferably white wall / cornice / ceiling behind you or to one side of you
  • the DIRECTION of the bounced lighting hitting your subject is what is critical to achieve the effect you want - usually this is 45deg up and away from your subject's face
  • DON'T forget that when you rotate your camera, the flash will be aiming somewhere different, so you need to re-adjust the flash
    • some people use a special flippable flash bracket for this purpose if they will be constantly doing this.
  • some like to additionally place an obstructing card at the flash head to prevent direct light hitting the subject, while others place a reflecting card at the flash head to ensure it provides some catch-lights in the subject's eyes.
  • consider using the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens for social events

fill-in flash

  • my preference for a fill-in flash on the camera is a ring flash or a bounce flash as this reduces secondary shadows caused by your fill-in flash
  • unfortunately, the Olympus Macro Ring flash can only be mounted on a few lenses such as the Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens and the Olympus m.ZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens - both via adapters - hopefully Olympus will remedy this situation, or better still introduce a new more compact macro ring flash with remote TTL capability that can act as a master.
  • note that a ring flash will cause red-eyes if the subject is looking towards the camera, has dilated pupils, and one is not doing a macro photo of their eye
  • reduce red-eye from a fill-in flash by having the fill-in exposure significantly under-exposed (eg. minus 2 stops)
  • most will opt for a normal on-camera flash, although it can be bounced behind them to provide a more shadowless fill flash
  • if using TTL flash, then simply adjust the flash exposure to a negative value

single off-camera manual flash in shoot-through umbrella

multiple flash units with a fill-flash on-camera

remote TTL flash

remote manual flash

  • remember flash exposure reduces by 2 stops every time you double the distance from flash to subject as light intensity falls by the square of the distance and thus it will be 1/4 the intensity if you double the distance
  • check the exposure by looking at the histogram on playback of the image, or use a flash exposure meter device
  • set ISO, shutter speed and aperture to set your desired ambient light exposure then set flash output power or flash-to-subject distance to set flash exposure
    • changing ISO, aperture or flash output will alter the flash exposure
    • changing shutter speed will alter ambient light exposure without affecting flash exposure
    • changing ISO or aperture will alter BOTH ambient and flash exposures
    • changing flash output power or flash-to-subject distance will alter flash exposure without affecting ambient exposure

using the Metz 15 MS-1 slave flash as fill-in

  • although this flash works in remote TTL with Canon, Nikon, Sony, Four Thirds, Micro Four Thirds (requires firmware v3 or higher) cameras.
  • it can also be used very well in manual exposure “learning” mode (so it ignores any pre-flashes)
  • it's size, weight and ring adapters make it well suited to Micro Four Thirds and as a fill in flash, it is to be preferred over the Olympus Ring Flash, as it is lighter, does not occupy the hotshoe and thus you can still use remote TTL flashes as your main and kicker flashes.

using the Canon MR-14EX Ring Flash with a PocketWizard mini-TT1

  • one can use the Canon “Ring” flash (actually a pseudo-ring flash unlike the Olympus) as the fill-in flash as this can be mounted onto any lens via filter thread adapters +/- step rings.
    • be aware that the controls of the flash cannot be changed while it is mounted on a Micro Four Thirds system unless you use an intervening hotshoe adapter which deactivates the TTL and command pins - you can change the settings while off the camera, turn flash off, and place on the camera turn on, and voila your new setting is still there, or you can turn the camera off then change the flash settings.
  • using the PocketWizard mini TT1 radio transmitter module in “dummy” basic trigger mode allows:
    • remote radio triggered flash with studio flashes or other flashes such as a Canon 580EXII or a Metz 45-CL4 (requires PocketWizard transciever for each flash - but I have had trouble using Olympus mount flashes with these units - be warned!)
    • Canon Ring Flash to be adjusted whilst on the camera with camera turned on
    • option of using shutter speeds faster than flash sync (Olympus cameras only, not Panasonic) with the compromise of top part of image not being lit by the flash.
    • option of using the flash unit's auto exposure sensor to determine correct flash output for your camera settings (these must be set on the flash manually)
  • when using the E-M5 with the Canon Ring flash, it is advisable to use the optional HLD-6 grip to improve the ergonomics as the flash is quite heavy.
  • at closest focus for the 75mm f/1.8 lens, ISO 200 (on the E-M5), and f/2.0, the Ring Flash will give correct main light exposure at flash output of 1/64th power
  • at subject distance of ~2.5m, ISO 200 (on the E-M5), and f/1.8, the Ring Flash will give correct main light exposure at flash output of 1/32nd power
    • now for fill-in flash you will be wanting the ring flash to be under-exposing the subject by 1-2 stops so this will need adjusting
photo/mft_portraitflash.txt · Last modified: 2016/07/03 10:43 by gary1

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