How to Create Compelling Wide-Angle Portraits Using One Off-Camera Flash

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What are your most memorable moments as a photographer? As a travel photographer, my short list of stand-out moments include wandering alone in Namibia’s dead tree forest, photographing sunbeams from the top of a cliff in China, and capturing the Aurora Borealis on the coast of Iceland.

1 Colombian Girl

However, a year ago all of those amazing locations and moments were trumped by spending 30 minutes photographing a little girl outside her home near Villa de Leyva, Colombia (pictured above). This was the first time the girl had her portrait taken, let alone by a foreigner. With all the confidence of an experienced model, she literally stole the show that day. I believe the session is an important memory for her and instantly became my top moment photographing to date.

Ironically, two years ago I would not have even bothered taking this picture. I was focused on landscape and outdoor travel scenes. Also, if I’m honest with myself, I was somewhat intimidated by using artificial lighting and working with people as subjects. In April of 2014, I gave environmental portraiture a shot and have never looked back. It is now an important focus of my work.

This article will provide some guidance on how you can create images like the ones you see here, using a wide-angle lens and just one off-camera flash. But first, let me let you in on a little secret – it’s not that difficult.

Getting things right in camera is the important first step, which is the focus of this article. Processing your images is equally important, but I’ll cover that in a future article. So, let me start by providing you with the core techniques, then get into equipment and settings.

2 Smoking Guy

Use a (Relatively) Wide-Angle Lens

Lens choice is critically important in portraiture. Most portrait photographers reach for their 85mm or 105mm lens when heading out on a shoot. These focal lengths give a nice, realistic look to the subjects. However, I find myself drawn to portraits that have a surreal look to them, and include extra context that helps tell a story. Also, wide-angle lenses require you to shoot close to your subject, which also brings your viewer into the scene.

So, the first step is to leave your 85mm or 105mm in the bag, and grab a wide-angle lens. Most of the portraits you see here were created at 24mm using a full frame camera (use a 16mm for the same view if your camera has a cropped sensor). For me, this focal length is the perfect blend of reality and distortion. If you shoot much wider, elements closer to the lens, such as arms and hands, look too big or elongated. Also, wider focal lengths mean a much bigger background, which is usually not desirable.

3 Dockworker Ships

Choose a Compelling Subject

Your subject is paramount. The Indonesian dockworker above is amazing. I spent 20 minutes photographing this guy and really had a difficult time choosing the best image. On the other hand, you could spend all day photographing me on the same dock, in front of the same ships, and have nothing but tossers at the end of the day.

I look for people that have experienced life. The ideal subject has a particular interesting quality about him or her, that makes them stand out from the rest. However, my subjects also have an everyday person quality about them. Finding subjects can be challenging, especially if you live in the suburbs of Chicago, like I do. I am a travel photographer and usually find my subjects in rural areas overseas. However, there are great subjects everywhere.

Clothing is critically important. If your 90-year old rural villager is wearing a hat that says, “I Love New York”, then you will want to politely ask him to take it off, or at least turn it around for the picture. The point is, don’t let out-of-context clothing ruin or weaken your shot.
4 Smiley Guy

Choose a Complementary Background

Your image is only as strong as the weakest part of it, which is often the background. This is because, as photographer Jim Zuckerman puts it, “The world is a compositional mess”. There are two important qualities you want out of your background:

First, at the very least, your background must be non-distracting. Although you can easily isolate your subject with a longer focal length, the background becomes a major consideration with wide-angle portraits. Beginner, and even intermediate photographers, can overlook even some obvious distractions in the background. You have probably seen them before: trees that look like they are growing out of the subject’s head, patchy spots of bright light in the scene, colorful objects, straight lines and geometric shapes. You essentially don’t want anything that competes with your subject for attention.

The image of the Indonesian dockworker below is non-distracting, but not much more. He is essentially standing in front of a shipping container, so this image won’t win any awards for its background. Nevertheless, it is still a good picture because of the strength of the subject.

5 Dockworker Container

Second, whenever possible, include a background that complements your subject by providing a context. I’ve shot many images with simple non-distracting backgrounds. But, my favorite pictures are those with a background that tells a story about the subject. This is why I love shooting in places like rural China and Indonesia. These countries have many ancient villages that provide opportunities for amazing backgrounds, such as in the image below.

6 Chinese Guy Hat

I like to keep all evidence of modernity out of the background. I don’t like plastic stuff in my pictures. I don’t include modern looking buildings or cars. Instead, I prefer rural areas with weather-beaten buildings. Of course, this all depends on what you are after. The important thing is that the background complements the subject and does not distract from it.

Shoot in the Right Lighting Conditions

Because the majority of the background is not lit by the flash, many of the same outdoor photography lighting principles hold true, even if a flash is being used. Try shooting either early or late in the day (when the sun is low in the sky) or in overcast conditions. I actually prefer overcast conditions, but still shoot relatively early or late in the day.

Put Your Subjects at Ease

I don’t hire models, so some subjects work well and others not as well. What you want to avoid is a picture of your subject standing flat-footed, straight up and down, and holding a fake smile.

To help avoid this, it is a good idea to start your session by gaining their interest and confidence. If you have some images you’ve shot and processed, show them to give him or her an idea of what you are looking for, and hopefully pique their interest. This should communicate immediately that you are not looking for them to just stand there and smile. It should also show that the posing expectations will be basic.

7 Colombian Lady Cat

Posing and Composition

Because I am shooting wide, I get quite close to my subjects and warn them ahead of time about this. For me, the eyes are a critically important part of the picture and must be very sharp. I focus on the closest eye, and re-focus frequently as I move around the subject slightly.

I generally ask him or her to look directly at the camera and not to smile, although not always. I then start moving slightly left or right, asking them to keep their head still and just follow the camera with their eyes. I usually shoot from slightly below eye level. I have them stand or sit at an angle to the camera. If the subject is standing, I have them put their weight on the back foot.

I like to include the subject’s hands in the composition. With a wide-angle lens, their hands in the foreground will look large, so try to strike a balance with the hands being prominent, but not too large. You can do this by simply positioning the hands closer to or farther away from the lens relative to their body.

8 Chinese Girl Laughing

Equipment and Settings

The Camera

Your camera should be equipped with an internal or external flash trigger to control your off-camera flash. Here is how I set things up:

  • Start by leaving your flash or trigger initially turned off.
  • Set your camera to manual mode.
  • If the session is outdoors, I try for settings of ISO 100, f/7.1 and a shutter speed of around 1/160. You can adjust your f-stop and shutter speed to your preference, but keep in mind that you cannot go faster than your camera’s maximum flash sync speed.
  • Make the necessary adjustments to slightly underexpose the background by 1/3 to 2/3 stop. I usually start by adjusting shutter speed, but go no slower than 1/60 and no faster than 1/160. If necessary, I will then adjust my f-stop to f/5.6 at the widest. Then, and only then, will I start bumping up the ISO.
  • If you are indoors, you need to start with a higher ISO as a first step, and then make your adjustments to shutter speed and f-stop in the same manner.

9 Chinese Woman

Lighting

For 90% of my portraits, I use a single off-camera flash, diffused with an umbrella or softbox. The most important rule with flash is “don’t ruin your shot,” which is usually done by putting too much flash on your subject. Instead, you want to get a decent balance of natural and artificial light, so that the flash is undetectable to the untrained eye, but lights your subject brighter than the underexposed background.

Now, turn your flash and trigger on:

  • Set your off-camera flash to manual mode.
  • I typically position the flash at a 45-degree angle to the subject, about 2-3 feet (slightly less than a meter) away, higher than their head, angled downward.
  • I usually start with 1/16 flash power when outdoors, and adjust from there until the subject stands out from the background, but does not look like they have been blasted with flash.

Post-Processing

You need to get things right in camera first. But, you will need to use a variety of post-processing techniques to get the effect you see in these images. I’ll coverthe techniques I use to process environmental portraits in a future article.

Thank you for reading, please share your wide-angle portraits and questions in the comments below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Ken Koskela is a Chicago-based travel photographer who captures subjects in excellent light, whether a dead tree forest in Namibia, or a villager in rural China. Ken combines his love of photography with over 20 years of travel experience to more than 75 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. You can check out more of his work www.KenKoskela.com and sign up for his free monthly photography e-magazine Inspirational Photography.

  • volen

    Good article and good photos! I like it, very inspirational πŸ™‚

  • Darlene Rollins

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  • Ken Koskela

    Thank you very much, Volen!! πŸ™‚

  • Judi McCann

    Good and informative article. I’m eager to read your next on pp.

  • Ken Koskela

    Thank you, Judi… I appreciate the comment.

  • Katherine Lamb

    “my room mate Mary Is getting paid on the internet 98$/hr”..,……..!wc534ctwo days ago grey MacLaren P1 I bought after earning 18,512 DoIIars..it was my previous month’s payout..just a little over.17k DoIIars Last month..3-5 hours job a day…with weekly payouts..it’s realy the simplest. job I have ever Do.. I Joined This 7 months. ago. and now making over. hourly 87 DoIIars…Learn. More right Here !wc534:?:?:???? http://GlobalSuperJobsReportsEmploymentsExplorerGetPayHourly$98…. .??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??:??::::::!wc534……

  • Nice article and great photo’s, but I think the PP went a little overboard on some (but that might be my personal taste :).

  • Tim Lowe

    All good points and spectacular examples.

  • Tony Sullivan

    Hmmm, I think I like what you presented. I work with seniors and this just might be the method that will work. Thanks Tony

  • Susan Karchmer

    Great guide for getting great outdoor portraits. Your results speak for the self. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and gift. One question….when describing your setting, you say you start by adjust shutter speed, but nothing slower than 1/160 and nothing faster than 1/160. Smile. Am I missing something, or is it a typo?

  • Lee McCurtayne

    If she is making all that money why does she need a room mate?????.
    Huhm.

  • Great shots, great article. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  • Ken Koskela

    Thanks very much, Jordan! πŸ™‚

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Susan – Thanks very much for the comments. I appreciate it. It is no slower than 1/60 or faster than 1/160.

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Tony. I can see how it might be nice doing some wider angle stuff to add some variety. Thanks for taking the time to read the article.

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Tim – thanks!

  • Ken Koskela

    Hello, Martijn! Thanks for the comments and, yes, the images are heavily processed, so not everyone likes the processing. πŸ™‚

  • Susan Karchmer

    Ha, thanks so much. I read it several times and never saw the 1 in the 160. Brain burp.

  • Ken Koskela

    πŸ™‚

  • Logan Pickup

    Great article! Small typo though: “peak their interest” should be “pique their interest”.

  • Ken Koskela

    Great catch! πŸ™‚

  • kitmichele

    Thank you so much for this article! Wide-angle photography has recently caught my eye, but I haven’t found the resources to learn more about it. Can you recommend any good external flashes/softboxes for a beginner photographer? Thanks Ken!

  • Jim Wise

    Great photos and article!

  • Carey Langsner

    Great article. Just wondering what equipment you travel with when doing this kind of photography? Do you actually carry a light stand and umbrella with you all the time, or do you have an assistant holding the flash. I ask because I am going on a cruise soon that will hit 6 ports in South America and I would like to try this style of photography, but will not have room for a light stand or umbrella in my luggage.
    Looking forward to seeing your processing system for this style of photography

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Carey! Thanks for the comments and for reading the article. I do travel with a portable umbrella, portable stand, trigger and one flash. However, I’m in Romania at the moment and have been only using available light because I am with another photographer and guide and can’t really slow them down with the longer sessions. The images still look good if you get the right conditions, but I generally prefer shooting with the flash in most cases. But, definitely still worth shooting even if you can’t bring the umbrella and stand. πŸ™‚

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, jim!… Thanks!

  • Ken Koskela

    Hello and thanks for the comments! πŸ™‚ i generally just use one or sometimes two Canon flashes. I have the 580EX2’s, which are out of date now (replaced with the Canon 600EX-RT’s). As for modifiers, there are all sorts of options out there. I haven’t really tested the options and generally just use a portable umbrella when traveling… it is a Calumet silver/white umbrella. My softbox is 2 foot by 2 foot…. I am traveling at the moment and can’t remember what brand it is, but there are a lot of good options out there…. Westcott has a good reputation, but I am guessing the difference between brands is somewhat marginal with the light modifiers, so no need to get the most expensive brands (in my humble opinion). πŸ™‚

  • Ken Koskela

    On your question re: an assistant… if I am traveling with a guide, then I would ask the guide to hold the flash and umbrella, but it is still on a stand when he or she is holding it. If I am without a guide, then I just set up the stand.

  • Michael

    Nice work! However, I am sorry… but to my personal taste these photos are all underexposed. I know this is your style and that is perfectly normal. I am passionate hobbyist and if I shoot this way, my friends and family members would ask me why all my photos are so dark.

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Michael – Thanks for the comment and for reading the article. I hadn’t heard any feedback regarding the pictures being underexposed before, but I suppose they are darker than most portraits people are used to seeing. They are intended to be stylized and have a certain mood about them. When I am shooting, I generally underexpose the background by 2/3’s stop and then bring in the flash to make the subject stand out a bit. I also tend to darken certain parts of the image during post-processing to draw attention to the face. Thanks again, Michael…. appreciate your comment. Ken

  • fixed!

  • Giovanni

    Very inspiring article and lovely pictures, I feel like taking my wide angle and go out to shoot. At certain point, you mention that if a villager is wearing a hat that says, β€œI Love New York” then you will want to politely ask him to take it off. I understand this may be out of contest but it could also give an interesting insight on the subject spirit and perhaps their dreams too. Especially, with a worn-out/dirty hat.

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, Giovanni! Thank you for the comments. Usually I avoid having words on clothing in the picture because it draws people’s attention… they want to first read the words and so they will focus their attention on the shirt or hat. But, yes, you are definitely right… in some cases a hat like that could make the shot more interesting as it adds a bit of a twist to the story. πŸ™‚ Good comment!

  • David Persikov

    Hi Ken, thanks for the article. I’ve recently got into portraits whilst travelling in Peru and accidentally (having “incorrectly” adjusted camera settings on a photograph of a shopkeeper leaning out into the light over his darkened counter) discovered I also like the moodier look of a photograph that some people may say is slightly underexposed. Excellent photographs and I am going to go out and see if I can implement some of your suggestions πŸ™‚

  • Ken Koskela

    Hi, David! Thanks for the comment…. glad to hear about your discovery and hope you are able to implement some suggestions. πŸ™‚

  • GreenMachine

    You said to under expose the background by about 1/3 or 2/3 stops. How do you measure that. My eyeballing is not that good yet.

  • Ken Koskela

    Hello! Yes, the idea is to arrive at a normal exposure, so underexposing the background a bit (without the flash) and then, when you bring the flash in, you have a normal exposure on the overall image. So, I initially leave my flash off and shoot in manual mode. I adjust my aperture and shutter speed until the meter on the back is about 1/3 stop (in most cases) to the left of center. Then I turn the flash on. I don’t want my overall image underexposed, just the background relative to the subject. Hope that helps.

  • MonkeySpanner

    Does everyone smoke at 24mm?

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  • Ashish Raj

    Give some light discussion on post processing for portrait

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