Natural light, for all conceivable reasons is a source of hard light. Except for when the sun is closer to the horizon and the rays of light travel almost parallel to the surface of the earth, this light is unsuitable for making good portraits for most part of the day. Having said that, there are ways to work around this hard light scenario. All you need are a few essential tools to make things a bit more amiable for flattering portraiture's. One of these tools would be your external flash.
In this article on digital photography tips we shall be discussing the use of external flash in outdoor digital portrait photography.
Now the reason I mentioned external flash and not the built-in poppy-uppy flash on your DSLR camera is because the small thing isn’t very flexible when it comes to creative photography. You can’t really zoom with it or use it to light your subject from the side. Additionally, there are not many options in terms of diffusers either which you can use with it. With an external flash you can do all of that and much more.
So, without further ado, here are the top five flash photography tips to make better outdoor portraits using your external flash.
Tip # 1 – Balance the ambient and flash power
You don’t want the flash to fire an overpowering amount of light. You need just the right amount that mixes perfectly with the ambient light to create a soft and flattering portrait. Nothing more nothing less. But how do you do that? One way of doing it would be a trial and error method. It may take a few exposures to get the balance right.
Alternatively, what you can do is use an external light meter. The external light meter allows you to set the right exposure for the scene without the flash taken into consideration. Then, once you have the exposure settings for your camera, dial in the appropriate flash output to illuminate the areas that are still dark. These would be under the chin and under the eyes.
Tip # 2 – Use a light modifier
Call them light modifiers or shapers or anything else that you may fancy. The thing is light modifiers are quintessential when it comes to flash photography. Professional proponents of digital photography prefers to work indoors where the light is constant and predictable. Natural light is highly unpredictable and it is neither constant.
So, s/he has to constantly change the camera settings to adjust to it. Only external lights together with light modifiers gives the kind of control that is necessary to work on a long portrait session without having to make frequent changes. There are a bunch of options which you can use with external flashes. Softboxes are my favorite because they create a really soft light that works perfectly in sync with ambient light. Another useful light modifier is the umbrella.
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Tip # 3 – Use the flash as a catchlight
How often has it been reiterated by other digital photography gurus that in order to make a good portrait image you got to make use of the catchlight? Apparently not enough. The catchlight is basically a reflection of the key light caught on the subject’s eyes. Sometimes it is not even the key light that is caught on the eyes, but a reflector that bounces light off of it for that very purpose. The importance of the catchlight is only realised when you compare two portrait images side by side; one with catchlight and one without.
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Tip # 4 – Use a reflector along with the flash
A reflector comes handy in a number of situations. You can use it create shade in a completely exposed environment. A little bit of shade allows you to create a soft lighting setup, which is definitely better for portraiture's. Again, a reflector can be used as a catchlight as explained above, allowing you to add life to your portraits. Finally, a reflector is the go to tool when you want to use a little amount of light to fill-in shadows under the chin and eyes, especially when you don’t have a flash unit to fall back on. When you have a flash, the reflector can bounce back some of the light to create a makeshift clamshell lighting arrangement.
Tip # 5 – Shooting during the blue hour
Some of the best portrait photography opportunities happen during the blue hour of the day. It is usually the half an hour after sunset and the half an hour before, depending on the latitude you are in. Wedding photographers often shoot pre-wedding shots of the couple at this time of the day. It is known as the blue hour because the sky still retains some of the blueness, just for about half an hour before it is completely consumed in black. There is a little bit of warm light towards the horizon at the west. A flash is handy in such a situation to throw in just the right amount of light to properly expose the face. Mind you, your metering should be set to expose for the background and not the subject’s face. Once you have metered for the background the flash will add the required quantity of light to illuminate the subject.