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How to Photograph Fantastic Portraits with One Flash

fantastic-portraits-with-one-flash

Using a flash for portraits can be a great way to enter the world of studio lighting without having to spend too much on an expensive lighting kit. While there are affordable systems, using a flash is both easy to set up and use when you know how to do it right. After some practice, you’ll achieve looks that have that studio quality and creative lighting all-in-one.

Image: Use one flash for portraits and bounce light off the ceiling for an even light on your client...

Use one flash for portraits and bounce light off the ceiling for an even light on your client’s face.

Why use flash for portraits?

Flash can give you the portability that you’re looking for in a lighting system without having to carry extra gear just to use it. You can use a flash on or off-camera. It offers versatility in use so that you can achieve the look you want in your portraits.

Image: Use one flash on-camera to light your clients against a sunset sky.

Use one flash on-camera to light your clients against a sunset sky.

Also, when you need to fill in light, say during sunset or compete with afternoon lighting, using a flash can help you get better exposure from frame-to-frame during your sessions. This gives both you and your clients more final images to choose from that are correctly exposed. You’ll also spend less time working on the images in an editing program.

What kind of flash is best to use for portraits?

While most flash systems are pretty good in their own right, you’ll want to invest a bit in a flash that is able to be used in both manual and TTL modes. Having a flash that has the ability to use both modes will give you more range during your portrait sessions.

Image: Difference between flash and no flash. Notice the background in both pictures. This was using...

Difference between flash and no flash. Notice the background in both pictures. This was using one flash on-camera.

Choose a flash system that is compatible with your camera. It doesn’t have to be of the same brand family. However, choose one that is made to work with your camera brand. It will give you better results and have fewer faults when the time comes to set it up and use it. You will spend less time learning how to use it on your camera and more time experimenting with it instead!

Modes on flash

There are two main modes on a flash and both have their purpose when it comes to portraits: TTL and manual.

How to Photograph Fantastic Portraits with One Flash

One mode is TTL, which means “through the lens.” It’s when the flash meters the light and then chooses how much light it will fire when you take the photo. This result can sometimes be inconsistent lighting frame-to-frame, but it’s helpful when you need to work quickly without having much time to change the settings.

TTL does come with flash compensation, however, so you can choose it to output more light or less light depending on what you want to achieve for your portraits. This will still allow the flash to meter and adjust accordingly on its own – thinking for you.

Image: Use TTL when you need to fire the flash quickly without wasting time with the settings. Use f...

Use TTL when you need to fire the flash quickly without wasting time with the settings. Use for moments that seem like they’ll pass quickly like fireworks. The flash meters the light and sets what it thinks is the correct power output.

The other main mode is Manual.

Manual allows you to set the power output from full (1/1), down to 1/128, on some flashes. This gives you control over how much light you want the flash to fire onto your subject and you can adjust as you go along. Manual gives you more consistent output and light since you only need to set it once. You can then leave it until your lighting situation changes or until you want to try something different.

Image: Taken with one flash on-camera at half-power to compensate for the fading light.

Taken with one flash on-camera at half-power to compensate for the fading light.

Both modes are great to explore when using flash on or off-camera to achieve your desired look in the portraits you take.

What happens when you use flash during sessions?

When you use flash during portrait sessions, you’re essentially taking a photo of the ambient light and the flash in one photo together.

Flash happens quickly. This is why many cameras often won’t allow you to use a shutter speed faster than 1/200th of a second so that your camera has time to capture the light in a scene. Some flashes come with an “h” button for high-speed sync, where it gives you the option to use a high shutter speed with the flash.

Image: Hitt the “H” button to be able to use the high-speed sync mode and photograph por...

Hitt the “H” button to be able to use the high-speed sync mode and photograph portraits with a shutter speed faster than 1/200th of a second.

Changing your shutter speed only changes the amount of ambient light. Whereas, when you change or adjust the ISO and aperture, both change the flash and ambient exposure. Changing the flash power only changes the flash exposure.

All are important to take into consideration when you use flash, whether on-camera or off so that you can correctly expose.

Image: In the photo on the left, I used one flash off-camera to camera right near the couple. On the...

In the photo on the left, I used one flash off-camera to camera right near the couple. On the right, no flash, same location and time.

For example, you can leave the flash power at a consistent output and change the ISO and aperture to achieve the desired look you want.

Image: Single flash tilted about 60 degrees toward the top with the bounce card up to bounce light b...

Single flash tilted about 60 degrees toward the top with the bounce card up to bounce light back onto the girl’s face.

When you’re getting started in using flash for portraits, keep in mind that you’re taking two photos in one exposure. A photo of what the flash lights and what it doesn’t. It takes some practice to achieve good results, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time.

On-camera vs. off-camera

On-camera

Flash, on-camera, works really well during portraits when you need to add a pop of light, or to bounce light to fill in shadows. It’s also great when you can angle it in a creative way to add some interesting light to your portraits.

Most often, you can use the flash on the camera and get the right look for your portraits. Especially if they are families, weddings, and other similar types of portraits.

Image: One flash on-camera pointed toward the client at night.

One flash on-camera pointed toward the client at night.

The great thing about external flashes is that they come with the ability to angle at different degrees. They also give you the option to rotate the head and get the flash to fire in the direction and angle that best fits your situation. For example, a bride getting ready in a room with low light is the perfect time to use the flash, either bouncing from the ceiling or wall perpendicular to the bride.

Image: The photo on the left is with the flash angled to the side. For the photo on the right, I poi...

The photo on the left is with the flash angled to the side. For the photo on the right, I pointed the single flash toward the ceiling to bounce light back into the bride’s face.

Using the flash on-camera, angled at the ceiling will give you nice even lighting, especially if the ceiling is white. Additionally, if you use the flash pointed sideways, it will bounce light at an angle that will give your bride some shadows and thus more drama and depth.

At a beach, for example, place the flash on the camera and angle it toward your clients. Here, you can make sure your clients are lit while the sun rises or sets. Depending on where you’re located, you can light them evenly while getting the colors in the sky exposed correctly as well.

Image: Both portraits are lit with a single flash on-camera.

Both portraits are lit with a single flash on-camera.

If you’re competing with midday sunlight, with the flash on your camera, you can fill in shadows as you photograph your client. This is a good alternative to using a reflector or having an extra pair of hands to help reflect light.

Another great advantage of having your flash on-camera is that it moves with you. You take your light where you need it. For example, if you’re following a child running along the seashore, your on-camera flash goes with you and fires each time you hit the shutter fully. That way, you don’t have to worry about moving the flash while trying to capture this fleeting moment for your clients.

Image: Single flash on-camera pointed directly at the clients to be able to expose for both the back...

Single flash on-camera pointed directly at the clients to be able to expose for both the background and clients.

Another pro is that when the flash is on your camera, it’s faster to set or change your settings for the particular situation you’re photographing. Let’s say you need to work quickly while photographing the portraits for a bride and groom right after the ceremony.

Having your camera on your flash will make it easier to adjust the settings and power output for smaller or larger groups as they can change from frame-to-frame. Or when you’re photographing in sunlight that keeps hiding and coming out from behind moving clouds. You can adjust your settings at each change of sunlight so that you can expose your clients perfectly.

Image: Both photos use a single flash on-camera to light the client. Flash can be used indoors and o...

Both photos use a single flash on-camera to light the client. Flash can be used indoors and outdoors.

Off-camera

You’re more likely to achieve more studio-like lighting to your portraits using off-camera flash. It’s also an excellent choice when you’re photographing individuals, couples, or in a closed space. The ability to trigger your flash while not attached to your camera can offer lots of different creative lighting angles too. It can give you results that more closely resemble what you had visualized.

Image: Only one flash was used to camera left pointed at clients directly while I stood about 45 deg...

Only one flash was used to camera left pointed at clients directly while I stood about 45 degrees from the flash.

For example, in the photo above, the couple was walking along the shore. The cloudy sky didn’t offer us much light before setting behind the horizon. Having the flash off-camera angled at them, but also angled so that it lit the sand below, helped create more drama.

Image: The photo on the left has no flash. However, the portrait on the right is using the flash off...

The photo on the left has no flash. However, the portrait on the right is using the flash off-camera left. Notice the difference in the ambient light temperature (the lamp post lights are warmer in the photo with flash).

With the flash off-camera and on a light stand, you have the ability to photograph portraits with a longer focal length without having to worry about changing settings.

Let’s say you want to light a portrait with the light at 45-degrees of your client, and pointed down so it adds a little bit of drama to the scene.

Set the flash and adjust the settings on a stand. Now you use a longer lens like an 85mm, 100mm, or the 70-200mm lens at about 10-feet of distance. You get the same results with other focal lengths because you don’t have to move your flash around.

Image: A single flash was positioned closer to the client in front of me while I stepped about 10-fe...

A single flash was positioned closer to the client in front of me while I stepped about 10-feet back to use my 50mm lens and get some interesting light on the portraits.

The advantage of off-camera flash is that you get consistent lighting without having to worry about moving it around the scene even when you use a different lens and are farther from your subject.

In addition, while the flash is on a stand, you’re able to use attachments like an umbrella or softbox with your flash and not have to worry about it falling over or moving it at all.

Image: Single flash used off-camera on a stand. I placed it high to mimic the sun in a small bedroom...

Single flash used off-camera on a stand. I placed it high to mimic the sun in a small bedroom.

With off-camera flash, you’ll need to use a radio transmitter/trigger of some sort. That way, your flash, and camera can communicate wirelessly and achieve different lighting techniques.

Some transmitters come with receivers, and you’ll need to physically touch the flash to change the settings. Other transmitters come with a built-in LCD screen where you can change the settings of the flash from your camera. This is a huge advantage if you are at a distance from the flash.

Image: Single flash used off-camera on a light stand. I made the photos warmer in post-production.

Single flash used off-camera on a light stand. I made the photos warmer in post-production.

In conclusion

How to Photograph Fantastic Portraits with One Flash

Taking portraits with one flash can be a much easier setup and offer many different lighting opportunities for your portraits. Whether you use the flash on or off-camera, you will be able to create and manipulate the light in your portrait both inside and out on location.

Have you used flash during portraits before? Share with us your setup and experiences.

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Jackie Lamas
Jackie Lamas

is a destination wedding and portrait photographer based on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She earned her degree in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Jackie has over 10 years of experience as a professional photographer and teacher. When she’s not on the beach, you can find her writing on her blog and spending time with her baby and husband. See more of her work on Instagram.