Natural looking outdoor portraits with a single flash

Written by Gary on April 17th, 2010

As I mentioned in a previous post, last weekend I offered to help a friend shoot some beginner models for their portfolios in an outdoor urban setting on a freezing cold, windy day.

I thought this would be a great opportunity to try my portable Westcott umbrella softbox and a flash in manual mode, much as how the excellent blog from Neil van Niekerk advocates.

It doesn’t matter which camera or flash you use – I could have done this with any flash with a wireless trigger and either an Olympus E510 with Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 lens, or a Panasonic GH-1 with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro (manual focus only on this camera), but for this outing, I blew the dust of my Canon 1D Mark III and used one of my favourite (although often difficult to use) lenses – the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L.

Neil has some great pointers in his blogs regarding use of a single flash as the main light for outdoor portraiture.

He manages to achieve this by ensuring ambient light on the subject’s face in only 1-2 stops underexposed from the main flash light, thus ensuring there are no dark shadows while using the flash in a softbox which ensures the edge of the shadows are nicely blended rather than being harsh – if you don’t have a softbox, you could bounce flash off a white cloth or wall.

The first requirement is finding a location with an aesthetic background lit approximately1-2 stops more than the subject – and as I found, finding such locations out of the wind can be more difficult than it would seem – a sunlit background is generally too bright for the ambient light falling on your subject unless this is reflected sunlight from a wall rather than from open sky.

Once you have found your location, then you need to work out how you would like to render the background

  • set your camera and flash to manual exposure mode
  • set your shutter to maximum flash sync (eg. 1/160th – 1/250th sec depending on camera)
  • set your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 to blur the background while still having all of your subject in focus,
  • set ISO to give the background exposure you want (as long as ambient light on your subject stays under-exposed so that it acts as a fill in).
  • if your ISO setting is going too high for your liking, you could use a longer shutter exposure as long as you avoid camera shake or subject movement.

Your subject exposure then becomes entirely dependent upon the manual flash output setting and how far you have the flash to your subject – this will take a little trial and error while checking the histogram on the camera after you take test shots – unless you happen to have a flash meter – and even then he suggests it is wise to check your histogram.

I like this concept as it produces images that look natural, can be flattering to the subject and avoids the flat lighting that often results from overcast conditions.

Here is an example of what I achieved with this technique on this horrible day for taking photos of people outdoors, although I have purposely limited the degree of main light from the softbox and increased contrast and added some vignetting in PS:


I highly recommend you peruse Neil’s excellent blog – he has some great examples of simple flash and ambient light portraiture, and there is much one can learn from his experience as a wedding and fashion photographer.


Comments are closed.