On Location Portraiture: Flash Style

On Location Portraiture: Flash Style


Sometimes its good to shake up your photographic routine a bit. It’s perfectly acceptable to be pleased with your current standard of technique and ability, but once in a while, everyone needs a push to greater achievement. Finding a newfound style can revolutionize everything about the way your style.

ISO 100, f/11, 1/25s, Off camera flash -2/3

ISO 100, f/11, 1/25s, Off camera flash -2/3

This last month, I recently experienced this phenomenon.

It was a grey afternoon in St. Louis; A bit chilly, a little damp. I was scheduled for an engagement shoot downtown on the waterfront. Being a photographer whose Bridal clientele ranges from Portland, OR, to Colonial Beach, VA, and everywhere in between, I don’t find myself with the opportunity to book many engagement shoots. It just happened that I was en route from a wedding the weekend prior and was able to meet with a couple who booked me for their spring wedding.

Typically, I enjoy photographing engagement portraits without an assistant or second shooter. I use the time to get to know my clients; laugh with them, find their preferences, observe the way they interact with one another. I admit, after photographing wedding parties of nearly 40, I have found engagement shoots to be laid back, original, and incredibly engaging.

This day, I kept noticing the dark tint of the sky. Cloud cover is, of course, beautiful for portraits. But this grey, overcast gloom was flattening the light on anything. My fourth glance at the clouds and I decided to call in an assistant. I was fortunate. She was available. We quickly hopped in the car and made our way into the city.

Regardless of the location, the scene, or the available light, using an assistant and additional flash lighting proved to be a win-win scenario. Photographing outside of a church beneath a dark overhang; Beneath the Gateway Arch of St. Louis; Along the waterfront; Before a luminous sky; In the midst of a grove of trees. The results were always the same: Dynamic.

Follow this strategy and you may find a little flash inspiration to add to your on location skills. [You may need to refer to your external flash manual for specific instructions.]

1. On camera flash set to Master. Dial the flash down so you have only slight frontal flash

2. Slaved flash held by an assistant. This will act as your main light. Set this light to be 2x brighter than your Master on camera flash.

3. Slaved flash should fire at your subjects from the side to create dimension and depth.

4. Slightly underexpose the image to let in additional ambient light and even out the exposure

Don’t take my word for it. Go out. Experiment. And then declare to the world your newfound skills with beautiful imagery you never thought you would capture.

[Above Image: ISO 100, f/11, 1/25s, Off camera flash -2/3]

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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.

Some Older Comments

  • lastminute April 6, 2010 07:40 pm

    I was on the gateway arch in 2003 and it was great. It is just impressiv what was build there. And the museum is worth a look.

  • Stuart Meyer- Indianapolis Wedding Photographer March 2, 2010 08:13 am

    Great job with this article. Cloudy days with flash are some of my favorites. I generally use a Quantum off-camera at an angle, a Vivitar 283 in the rear for hair light (or to provide a back-glow), and a 580EXII on-camera (turned down a bit) for fill on the front. To make the sky more blue I use a 3700 K gel.

  • Teri February 13, 2010 07:19 am

    thanks so much for sharing!

  • Jay February 5, 2010 03:28 am

    Wouldn't "letting more ambient light in" be over exposing? Leaving the shutter open longer? For a good cheap flash trigger go to ebay and search for the RF 602. They come from and are shipped from China, but they seem to be really good and you can get 2 receivers and a transmitter for less than $60. You can also get a second set of 1 rec. & 1 trans. to use as a remote shutter release! Very cool. (about $40)

  • Nancy February 2, 2010 05:07 am

    Thanks for this - I'm shooting some portraits for a Professional Bull Rider out at a farm this week and will love having something new to try. Colonial Beach, really? We are there every weekend in the summer and love all the interesting people who hang out there. It's a real undiscovered gem; I was pleased to see you mention it.

  • peteson February 1, 2010 01:29 pm

    This is such a great shot and I really appreciate you setting it up and explaining it. Very cool.

    Read more: https://digital-photography-school.com/on-location-portraiture-flash-style#respond#ixzz0eFajQN3j

  • Ed Frazier January 31, 2010 03:42 pm

    Here is a sample image of a setup that is similar to what I use: http://www.flickr.com/photos/venomphotography/3260896644/

  • David Snook January 30, 2010 03:35 am

    Great article and photo. You have motivated me to use more off camera flash.

    In response to Norm Levin. I love your photos. I I primarily use one on camera flash. This works well when you have another light source from the side or back that is your main light, such as in your photos. It does not work well when the on camera flash becomes your main light. In this persons situation the ambient light did not have direction.

  • lilly hurley January 29, 2010 05:52 pm

    I simply love this photo. Would not mind learning more steps from you.

  • smashpotato January 29, 2010 03:22 pm

    thank you for the input.. :D

    I agree, we should sometimes get out of our comfort zone

    try other techniques..

  • Ron Nelson January 29, 2010 01:05 pm

    former post should read "modestly priced" flash and slave trigger unit

  • Ron Nelson January 29, 2010 01:02 pm

    Please suggest a modestly proced flash and slave trigger unit

  • Stacey Malleck January 29, 2010 11:54 am

    Thanks for the advice! I tried it and loved it. I'm sold!

  • Norm Levin January 29, 2010 11:20 am


  • Norm Levin January 29, 2010 11:19 am

    Here's the link to my comment just above, showing my on location portraits using a single on camera flash.

  • Rick T. January 29, 2010 07:24 am

    This is such a great shot and I really appreciate you setting it up and explaining it. Very cool.


  • Norml January 29, 2010 06:01 am

    For those who don't have access to either a second or off-camera flash unit, or an assistant (they both cost money), be assured you can get very satisfying results with just one on-camera flash. The trick is knowing how to balance the ambient light with the electronic one so they blend seamlessly. Yes, this may take some experimentation as every scene and subject presents its unique challenges. Here's a few of my location portraits using this technique:

    [eimg url='http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portraits/Portraits/3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro-A-LB' title='3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro-A-LB'][eimg url='http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portraits/Portraits/3273171_vNPqi#511934861_5nYnH' title='3273171_vNPqi#511934861_5nYnH']

  • Tyler Robbins January 29, 2010 04:39 am

    for canon folk, the wireless transmitter works nice with a couple canon strobes.... it works best indoors or in shade, not so much in full sunlight.

  • Jeff January 29, 2010 03:13 am

    This is a fantastic tip and will try this on my engagement shoot this weekend. I was already thinking something along these lines as it's supposed to be overcast but now I know exactly how I'm going to handle it. Thank you!

  • Martin Barabe January 29, 2010 12:07 am

    I am going to go stropist very soon, i just ordered a set of RF 602 radio transmitter that has great review all over and long range plus costs between 30 to 40 USD ( i think it is the end of pocket wizards). I just cant wait to see the change on my portraiture.

  • Matthias January 28, 2010 09:53 pm

    I love on location shots with small flashes:





  • Jonathan January 28, 2010 02:36 pm

    great article, very simple and straight to the point, thanks for sharing.

  • Ben H January 28, 2010 11:07 am

    http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/ is a really good site for people who are just starting out with off camera flash.

  • John M January 28, 2010 10:43 am

    Great article, and timely. My son has asked me to photograph his wedding in a few weeks so I'm trying to work out just how and when to apply this sort of idea. I have a couple of quick questions. Firstly you say "off camera flash - 2/3". What exactly does the 2/3 part mean? And secondly, your point number 4 - "Slightly underexpose the image to let in additional ambient light and even out the exposure". I'm not sure I understand what you mean by this, could you explain it a little more for me please?

  • James K January 28, 2010 08:54 am

    Lovely shot and great idea. It is all to easy to think flash is just for use indoors or at night time. I'll definitly give this a go!

  • Paula M January 28, 2010 08:18 am

    Gorgeous picture!

  • Ed January 28, 2010 06:55 am

    Nice write up for a subject that can take hundreds of pages to explain and provide inspiration. I too have experimented with off camera flash for the first time about a year ago and I was pleasantly shocked at the results. Now I rarely use on - camera flash unless there is no other option.

    Now I have studio strobes and battery power for those on location shots that wow!

    To make a quick and easy off-camera flash and receiver go to ebay and look for camera receivers and triggers. Some are better than others so do your homework..but a good set with 1 transmitter and 2 receivers can be had for $40.00 (US) on average. This opens a whole new world that you might just like!

  • Fernando January 28, 2010 05:35 am

    Beauty! Well described and layed out article on the benefits of flash photography! If you use Canon flashes and want to get inspired; try playing with the ratio's which are possible directly on the 580EX II flashes. (I am not sure if Nikon has the same sort of tool)
    I am loving off camera flash more and more for adding depth in my shots! I would however love to have some pocketwizards to trigger them much better than the built in IR.