How to Use Flash for Night Portraits - Digital Photography School
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How to Use Flash for Night Portraits

Night Portraits can be tricky and generally require experimenting with artificial lighting. In this post Christina from ChristinaNichole Photography shares some tips on using Flash for Night Portraits.

As many of us approach the dead of winter, we photographers must deal with our natural light disappearing by 4pm or earlier. The possibility of cool natural lit portraits becomes less and less likely. Still yet, the portrait photographers must go on. Here is a technique for FLASH-lit portraits, inside or outside, after the natural light has all but gone.

Equipment:

SLR, and 1-2 Speed lights.

Step 1: Set Your Camera

You want to shoot on TV with your shutter speed at 1/10-1/30, and your ISO set to somewhere between 200-400. If you have Canon speed lights on ETTL, your flash will automatically adjust itself for the light necessary to compensate for the lack of exposure as set by your camera.

For example:

night flash-portraits-1.jpg

night flash-portraits-2.jpg

  • The first image is no flash. I was set to ISO 200 at 1/10th of a second. Its horribly lit and blurry.
  • For the second image I have retained the same camera settings, I simply have added one front flash. The slow shutter speed has enabled me to use the ambient light in the scene and this evens out the lighting in the entire image. The flash also “froze” my subject so I don’t have to worry about camera shake.

Step 2: Determine the Look of Your Image

  • The direction of your flash will determine much about the outcome of your image. For example, in the previous image there was one flash that lit my subject from the front. You can discern this by attention to the direction of the shadows that extend behind our subject.
  • When the flash comes behind our subject, as in this image, it creates a rim-light halo affect.

night flash-portraits-3.jpg

Step 3: Set up Your Flash

  • Play with the angles of your flash. Your flash can be “behind to the right” of your subject, or “directly behind” your subject, and both angles will completely change the look and feel of your portrait.

night flash-portraits-4.jpg

Your end result will be fun glamour style night portraits!

Don’t be afraid to play around with your flash and your settings. Many creative solutions come from discoveries. Let yourself have fun and relax. When studied and properly used, flash can tend to some fantastic images!

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

  • austin demek

    Very interesting tips, also some group is plagerizing your stuff claming it as there own to there web site. Some nps site.

  • http://www.pludge.com/ Øystein “Svampebob” Sund

    Apikå?

Some older comments

  • Mercy

    June 23, 2013 07:11 pm

    this is the best
    good article i hope its for the best

  • Will

    June 22, 2013 01:38 pm

    Why has NO ONE mentioned the fact that these pictures were taken at 200-400 ISO!!!
    I know I'd be shooting this night time portrait around 6400! That way with a slow shutter speed and your flash doesn't work as hard and appears MUCH softer on the subject!

  • Neyo PhotoGraphy

    March 18, 2011 08:56 am

    great tips, i like it. i also take a few blank side on the right for landscape photo.. the result will be fun glamour style portraits!

  • philippaopao

    February 22, 2011 03:19 am

    In-camera flash tends to do the 'spot light' effect, wherein the subject is the only one lit by the flash and the background/foreground tends to be underexposed to near-pitch black. You don't need a bigger flash gun to solve that problem, because chances are you will end up with the same awkward exposure. Just crank up the ISO to 400 or 800 to 'balance' the available light between the light produced by the flash.

    Hope that helps.

  • squareart

    May 7, 2010 12:36 am

    Jeeze you're all like a bunch of old women!
    Can't you accept this as quick tips and move on?

  • Chris Pascal

    February 5, 2010 06:03 pm

    It's really inspiring. Simple and easy to execute. Thanks Christina !!! Waiting for another tips from you.

  • Chris

    February 5, 2010 04:15 am

    OK. Forget all of the technical jabber and just look at the final product. Ask yourself, "Is this a nice photo?" Isn't that what really matters? My answer would be, "No." Why?

    Because:

    1) The background distracts from the subject.
    a) The multicolored lights in front of the subjects face look as if something is hovering in front of her- espescially since the rest of the background fades to black.
    b) The overwhelmingly bright light above her head also distracts from the subject simply because it is SO bright AND it looks as if it is coming out of or attached to her head.

    2) The subject's face is completely washed out, and does not allow us to see any details.

    The final result: This looks like a picture any child could have taken with a point and shoot camera and it's built-in flash.

  • Chris Pascal

    December 18, 2009 04:33 am

    INSPIRING !!!!

  • Mile

    December 8, 2009 03:53 pm

    I don't like the last photo. I don't think the face is "perfectly exposed." It's over-exposed if anything. The first image (no lights) isn't that horrible at all. It's night photography, it should not be lit up like Dresden '44, for crying outloud. I never use lights when shooting at night. Slow shutter speed and you'll get plenty of it...

  • Neil B

    July 3, 2009 08:16 am

    i like to front and rear light a subject with black flourecent light, then use the flash on rear curtain and a slow shutter speed seems to amke the picture more vibrant and tkes the harshness out of the white flash light, huh what do i know im only a dreamer

  • Janine

    June 9, 2009 07:10 pm

    Great tips...thanks so much! Love the resulting image :-) I am rushing out to buy a Canon speelite asap!

  • canon lover

    March 26, 2009 03:47 pm

    Love the bokeh in the last picture. How can you make the bokeh appear like that?

  • Bubby Jones

    January 21, 2009 05:22 am

    Okay for all of you criticizing the example photos understand that article is neither a lesson on portraits nor portrait lighting. It's quick short article about night flash effects. As I see it the photos provide a very real life example of what to expect from flash.

    As for the second picture again that's showing an example of straight-on flash; he explains that fact. The third photo is again for illustrative purposes. Fourth photo 1. It may actually appear better in person, also reproduction in a magazine looses highlights; 2. It may appear in real life as it does in the magazine being the vision of the photographer. The photos weren't there for you to criticize they were there to drive home a point.

    Look at Lomography they're mostly out of focus yet folks are flocking to it. Lens Baby the same thing but, again it's what the photographer is wanting not what the viewer wants. So get over yourselves.

    As for TV it's truly written as Tv or Av. If one has only used Nikon then yes they would be confusing seeing Tv and Av; nothing wrong with that (perhaps a better explanation in the article what those are). If one uses other cameras that have Tv Av they may be confused with S and A, B, or X. Because your experience encompasses all terminology don't expect others to have the same knowledge as you. That would be the hight of conceit.

    Is the article all inclusive heck no, any article will leave something to be desired. It's a short fast article, maybe that's all the editors allowed room for. There are entire books relegated to flash, hundreds of websites as well. So just get over it, quite being so smug, self righteous. Your condescending opinions aren't all that important.

    Again, the article is providing three examples it illustrate a point. For those of you on your high horse go submit your own short article with pictures.

  • Avangelist

    January 19, 2009 08:35 am

    I agree with some of the earlier statements, this barely scratches the surface. Of course you can't blow it or people might not buy the mag for more in-depth.

    But I dunno. The second shot to me looks horrible. Way too harsh light and I hate strong shadows.
    The rest look slightly OOF and I would guess that is due to the possibly un-necessary shutter speed. You cloud of course go fast and increase the ISO.

    Like to see more posts on metering the light and stearing clear of auto functions.

  • Phil Clark

    January 13, 2009 10:02 pm

    Good article, thank you.
    For non portrait subjects, I have found some good effect with using an every day "hand held flash light" (or "torch" for our European readers). Using a tripod is with the shutter is open, shine the flash light over the subject. You can get some great effects and the subject doesn't get over exposed causing a loss of detail. You'll need to play with the settings depending on the available ambient light.

  • Joe A

    January 6, 2009 11:37 am

    Hans D (what does D mean?)

    either you're retarded or use Nikon.... so you think there is only one way to see things. Actually Tv does make sense (Time value)as much as S (shutter or... speed) if you're within the realm of photography... specially if you know more than the universe with an N... from Nikon. Actually, also Pentax use Tv... and even Av and also Sv for Sensitivity value, something from the digital era. And Pentax also as X (for flash sync...).
    This reminds me a story from some years ago... A guy in a shop telling me that the Tv mode in a camera he had on the shop window was made specially for taking pictures from Tv. When I tell the story I remember two things: the salesman was stupid and the camera was a Canon. Could be a Pentax...
    Because I've used Canons all my life (and I also still have Nikons and Minoltas and have in fact used almost everything that comes to the market) I know well what. I even know what T and B mean, so Iam not a whiz kid from the digital era... In fact Iam 54 and started taking pictures at 9 and using my parents bathroom as a darkroom at 10... It's a long Time (value)...

  • Hans D

    January 4, 2009 09:11 pm

    Just two remarks:

    1 - Please, do NOT assume everyone has a camera with a TV. I own a TV that I use to watch the 8 o'clock news. I've been making photos since the age of 15 (now 55) and only ever heard of A and S. I guess I'm either stupid or retarded.

    2 - Slave flashes are the future . Recently I bought a CANON HF-DC1 which is a no-good little thing. (Around 100 euros, doesn't handle pre-flashes, cannot use rechargeable batteries, cannot be altered/adapted in any way).

    So I searched some more and found a better one. I now am the very happy owner of a METZ 28CS-2 DIGITAL. In automatic mode recognizes pre-flash and flashes on the main-flash. Also has the possibility for a manual mode where you can influence a lot of its behavior. I only got it 3 days ago, so I have to explore further. Accepts rechargeable batteries as well. Very probably I will order a second one very soon.

  • Nelson

    December 29, 2008 01:55 am

    Nicely done, on your final did you zoom in or was it actual distance?

  • Dave B

    December 23, 2008 02:42 am

    Thanks. I recently shot a several candid pics and portraits at a very dim light party with my sb600 on top. I slowed my shutter speed down to pick up as much ambient light as possible, but I now realize I could've gone even slower to get even more ambient light in the background. Also, I just assumed that you showed the flash for rim light as example. Obviously we'd frame a shot like that a little differently or tweak the position of the back flash when it is time to shoot for real. Thanks again.

  • Michael

    December 22, 2008 03:29 pm

    Debbie: Portraits of this quality? You will already get close with your on-camera flash, but everyone will look like a deer in headlights... If you instead want better quality photos, you won't get around to using one or more speedlights off-camera (not to mention to influence the quality of light). For better control, I advise to use the speedlight in manual mode instead of the automatic mode used above.
    Your D60 flash does not have a commander mode like higher Nikon camera models. To trigger a speedlight externally, you will have to use either an SB-800 on-camera, a coord or a radio trigger. Coord or radio trigger ("entry-level" such as Cactus V2s) will be the most affordable options.

    But in the end, what you can achieve is also bounded by your creativity, which can somewhat compensate for lack of equipment. In a night scene for example, look for light sources present in the surroundings and use them to help expose your subject.

  • Sarah

    December 22, 2008 01:49 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I LOVE the final pic! Very beautiful!

  • debbie bower

    December 22, 2008 09:21 am

    I am fairly new to the photography world but loving every minute of it! I am getting my first DSLR (NIKON D60), next week for Christmas and CANNOT wait.. It's sitting in my bedroom, just taunting me!!!

    Anyway, as a fairly new photographer who does not yet own a speedlight flash I would like to ask a question...

    Is it possible to take this quality night portrait without the speedlight?

    Thanks
    -Deb

  • Salt Lake Wedding Photography

    December 20, 2008 09:04 am

    thanks for the tips... ive always had trouble trying to take pictures during dusk/evening time. ill have to see if i can improve now, with these tips.
    -jack

  • Mikel Daniel

    December 20, 2008 02:52 am

    While I agree that the posted examples are not the best, I believe the intent was to give a modest example of what can be accomplished with the inclusion of a strobe without killing the ambient in the process. Personally, I feel the exposure could be adjusted, but that's something the end user gets to explore and learn on their own. What this article did was get the juices flowing.

  • Dave

    December 18, 2008 04:17 pm

    Some of the comments here are a bit harsh. The article seems intended to provide a starting point for most to begin exploring flash photography, which is by no means a simple exercise. We shouldn't be too critical of the examples provided. While they could be better excessive critique detracts from the main point. I'd venture to guess just about everyone reading this has struggled at some point with flash use and still does from time to time.

    I would however mention a couple of things... (1) on-camera flash is a killer. If you want your photos to look like Xerox copies use on-camera flash. But if you want to distinguish your subject from its background and foreground elements get the flash unit(s) off the camera and play; and (2) Pointers the the Strobist, Joe McNally, and many other sites that emphasize the use of off-camera flash technique are excellent comments that will benefit almost everyone regardless of skill level.

  • darryl

    December 18, 2008 12:56 pm

    Poorly written article for the masses that will try to read it... Few people will understad what the hell TV even means. Yes, some of you will. Poorly shot as well with massive over exposure loosing most facial details. I hope few if any people will follow this set of confusing, poorly written instructions. Today most folks have a pop up flash and just want to know how to use it at night. As far as the 1/10 second exposure goes,, yes you need to be steady and the subject should try to not move either..However, the flash is not flashing for all of that 1/10 time so any blur should be small. If your camera has a slow sync or rear curtain - read up on it's usage. Or, contact me..

  • zulfadhli

    December 18, 2008 12:41 pm

    hey... nice tips... it is good to get the flash light fill in with the natural light so that the lighting looks more natural..

    http://www.photomakers.net

  • Anthony

    December 18, 2008 12:36 am

    Frankly I am underwhelmed with the results in the above photos. Photo #2 is a textbook example of a photo that needs to be color balanced. The subject, which is flooded by the flash, looks properly white balanced, the surrounding scene dull and dingy yellow. Gel the flash and balance the scene.

    Picture number 3. The bright white flare in the upper left corner, is in a word, horrible. The eyes are drawn to the brightest spot in a photograph and that white flash is not where you really want the viewers eyes to go.

    Picture number 4. The face looks hot and over exposed. There is almost a complete lack of shadow and detail on the broad side. There is a not so pleasing shadow line under the chin. I would say it is in no way "perfectly exposed." Again we have that bright flash appearing over the hair line with great distraction. The overall look certainly is not very flattering or glamorous.

  • Matt

    December 17, 2008 03:24 pm

    sorry, but those are horrible examples! the light is harsh, unnatural, unflattering, and flat. not to mention the hard shadows the light is throwing on the subject. work on diffusing your light.
    those shots look like nothing more than someone using on camera flash aimed right at their subject. i'd suggest using aperture priority as it's the size of the aperture that will determine how much/little light is on the subject. the shutter speed will light the subject the same whether it's at 1 second or 1/200 of a second. better yet, use manual modes in your flash and don't rely on ETTL/ITTL.
    read strobist's lighting 101 and 102 if you want useful tutorials.

  • Bill Boehm

    December 17, 2008 11:41 am

    I have also found great success by using my external flash instead of the built-in one and pointing the flash head up for bounce fill. This will eliminate much of the harshness from a straight, on-camera flash and can also reduce or eliminate those long shadows. Of course you typically will do this shooting indoors or can also be done by aiming the flash into some other nearby reflective object. If someone with you is wearing white, that can also work as a reflector.

  • Bill Boehm

    December 17, 2008 11:11 am

    @Milkshake: I had a difficult time with this also when I was just starting out. The flash will freeze the subject however depending on how long you leave the shutter open, you can get some light trails or ghosting effects if your subject moves either before or after the flash fires. Most cameras and external flash units are preset to fire at the beginning of the exposure (front curtain) but many pros will recommend changing that setting in your camera to fire at the end of the exposure (rear curtain). You can get some pretty cool effects with this if your subject is moving as you'll see the ghosting and then your subject will be "frozen" and captured sharply at the end of the exposure. If you leave your flash set to front curtain then it can make it look like the subject is moving backwards as you'll have a sharp, frozen exposure first and then the ghosting in front of the subject in the direction that it is moving.

  • Grant Northsby

    December 17, 2008 09:50 am

    the face is a little washed out - but I personally don't mind the effect. To get it less washed out the flash could be slightly diffused, bounced off a reflector or moved further back from the model - but as I say - I think the high contrast is kind of cool.

  • Floriantanplan

    December 17, 2008 08:30 am

    Here is an example of creative use of Flash by night for -- let's say -- portraitS :-)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fpoulin/2597300707/

    And with focus ;-)

  • Charles

    December 17, 2008 08:20 am

    Have to agree with Chris, the face is bleached out. Personally, I'm a manual flash guy and prefer to do the compensation myself.

  • Chris

    December 17, 2008 08:09 am

    I realise this is probably intended as a basic intro but I think it would also be worth mentioning using FEC to prevent the loss of detail that comes from using a flash to light a subject's face. Maybe I'm being too picky but I think the "after" shots above are too over-exposed ...

  • Mikel Daniel

    December 17, 2008 07:07 am

    Yes, it will freeze the image at the moment of the flash. Just think of the flash "burning" the image into the sensor. The term for what he actually did is called "dragging the shutter" which is done to capture the subject, but also allow lots of ambient light into the photo, giving the photo a less artificial look, so to speak.

  • Jared

    December 17, 2008 07:03 am

    Not to be a downer, and maybe it's just my eyes or my computer, but I think all of the images are out of critical focus...was this intentional?

  • Will

    December 17, 2008 06:23 am

    Nice easy-to-understand post for a beginner like me. Pity I have to wait until I get a new camera at Xmas to try out these tricks :)

  • Michael

    December 17, 2008 04:52 am

    @Milkshake: The shutter speed only determines the ambient exposure; the flashes fire probably shorter than 1/4000 and will indeed freeze the action.

  • Michael

    December 17, 2008 04:49 am

    Nice tips, but uhm... the end result doesn't look perfectly exposed at all - there is no texture in the face left anymore. Less (flash power) is more in this case. And you can see the back flash, bit of an unfortunate angle.

  • Sam

    December 17, 2008 04:18 am

    Night portraits are best when you bounce the flash off an angle on some surface to the face of the subject. Could use a slave flash to lit the background according to the requirement

  • Richard Skoonberg

    December 17, 2008 02:33 am

    Well done and easy to follow.

  • Milkshake

    December 17, 2008 02:06 am

    Can I ask a stupid question ? When using the flash can you really get away with such a slow shutter speed. You make the statement, "The flash also “froze” my subject so I don’t have to worry about camera shake." Is that really true ? Since the shutter speed on the second shot is 1/10, I would have thought there would be the danger of camera shake or subject movement. Any thoughts on this ?

  • Chris

    December 17, 2008 01:39 am

    Wanna learn to light? Visit http://strobist.blogspot.com and read through Lighting 101.

  • The World in 35mm

    December 17, 2008 01:30 am

    Thanks. And agreed with previous post, this topic can be explored much further, but its an excellent start to getting the night portrait juices flowing. :)

    Joe

  • John

    December 17, 2008 01:29 am

    TV is shutter speed priority on a Canon. I equate the "T" with "time". AV is aperture priority on a Canon. Obviously the "A" equates to aperture.

    On a Nikon shutter speed priority is the "S" on your mode switch. Check out this video clip http://cnettv.cnet.com/2001-1_53-26900.html

    This is a great simple post. I was planning on buying a Canon 580 Speedlite. Now I will have to buy two!

  • Gary Thom

    December 17, 2008 01:16 am

    Wes Chamness

    TV - Time Value - Shutter priority.
    AV - Aperture Value - Aperture Priortity

    S / A make much more sense to me too.

    Gary (Nikon Shooter)

  • Wes Chamness

    December 17, 2008 01:04 am

    Maybe I'm an ignorant Nikon user, but what is shooting on TV?

  • Pablo

    December 17, 2008 12:55 am

    nice post. but I believe the topic could be much further explored.

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