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Late on a winter evening, I was photographing atop a ridge in Colorado’s Front Range. I had been working on some landscape shots, but with the light fading from the sky, the thought of beer and food was beginning to overwhelm my desire to stay out. The colors were shifting to the deep tones of blue hour, and the light was long gone from the hills. About to give up and head home, I spotted a lone juniper atop a rocky outcrop, perfectly silhouetted against the deep blue of the mountain sky. I sighed, tempted to ignore the scene, but instead put my camera back on the tripod, walked over and composed a shot. With a click, I snapped the shutter.
The image was decent, nice blues with a clean black foreground, but it needed some warmth, an element to contrast with the abundant cool tones. “If only I could get a beam of sunlight to reach back above the horizon…” I thought to myself.
Wait a second… I didn’t need the sun, I had a flash and a remote trigger in my bag. I pulled it out, all thoughts of beer and food forgotten, and placed the flash on a boulder a few feet to my left. I set it low, to 1/4 of full power, then took a shot.
Better, I thought, looking at the image glowing on the back of my camera, but still not right. The light coming from the flash was too cool, lacking the warmth I wanted. Digging back in my bag, I emerged with a pack of gels and slapped a half cut of CTO (color temperature orange) over the flash, and clicked off another.
“Now we’re talking”, I muttered. A warm beam of light crossed the rocky foreground to light up the tree. Never mind that the actual sunlight disappeared 45 minutes before, I could re-create it with a little artificial light trickery. A few adjustments to the flash’s positioning and brightness, and I had my keeper shot. Finally, I could go home.
For most photographers, flash is relegated to the studio, and if used outside it is usually restricted to portraiture. But there is so much more potential for artificial light. Landscape and wildlife photography can often benefit from a little flash, and with some creativity, it can bring out the best in your images. Here are a few tips to help you get using flash for your outdoor nature and landscape photography.
To get started, you’ll need a few things in your bag:
As with almost all flash use, for best results, you’ve got to get the light off your camera. On-camera, straight flash, looks weird and unnatural. I like to say that photographic rules are meant to be broken, but this one seems universal: get the flash off your camera.
Get the flash off your camera
Direction of light, and how much to use it, is a matter of your personal vision, but here are my thoughts: Artificial light should either look so natural, you don’t notice it comes from a bulb, or so obvious, that it’s clear the scene was lit for artistic reasons. Anything in between usually doesn’t work.
As with all successful photography, you need to think through your image, and the story you are trying to tell. Do you want a natural-looking scene or are you aiming for an artistic portrayal of your subject? Once you have an answer to that question you can move forward.
The near-dark hours before dawn and just after sunset, or full night, are the most suitable times to add a bit of light to a scene. A natural look is usually subtle and may rely heavily on the light that is already available to you. In my example of the juniper tree, I kept the flash setting low, and warmed the light with a gel to get a sun-like look. Finding the right balance between flash and ambient light is critical.
The further you get from the flash, the dimmer, and harder the light becomes. A flash aimed toward the ground will be very bright close to the strobe, fading quickly to invisibility. When setting your scene, use the test button to look at the throw of light across your subject. Aim it carefully, and take advantage of the flash’s zoom to consolidate the beam just where it is needed.
Once set, pop a shot or two, and check the results on your LCD. Almost always, you’ll find you need to adjust the flash brightness, placement, or the ambient light exposure.
When using flash remember this: adjust ambient light with the shutter speed, and flash with the f-stop (aperture).
For example, if you want to bring out more brightness in the sky, lengthen your shutter speed, if you want to increase the apparent brightness of your flash, open up the aperture. This is effective for small adjustments in camera, and keeps you from having to constantly readjust flash settings.
An artistic look is more straight forward, but light direction, intensity, and color are just as important. I often photograph the northern lights around my home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Often the moon, stars, or aurora itself, are sufficient to illuminate the foreground, but at times, it fades to black as you can see below.
In such cases, a splash of light is just what I need. When photographing the aurora, or the night sky in general, I rarely carry an actual flash, but I’m always wearing a headlamp. During a typical 5-10 second exposure, if I need a little extra texture or warmth, I can pan the beam quickly over the foreground, “painting” it with light as I did in this image.
Light from a typical LED is very cool, but cover it with CTO gel, and nice warm tones result. Light painting is a popular technique, but one that requires some practice to make sure your subject is evenly lit, and not too bright. Mixing light painting and ambient can be very effective to even out brightness in an image, and compensate for highlights. In Argentina, a few years ago, I was shooting a historic farmhouse during the late evening. Bright porch lights on the house needed to be evened out, so I painted some key parts of the scene.
A warning: painting light can mess with the color of a digital image. If you use your camera’s automatic settings, as I do, light painted images will often require some color correction in post-processing. Shoot in RAW to be sure you retain this flexibility.
Flash can also play an important role in wildlife photography. Birds in particular are often down low in dark forests, where natural sunlight is rarely found. The flat, boring light beneath the foliage can be replaced by the directional light of a flash.
When using flash with a long telephoto, you can often get away with on-camera, or bracket-mounted flash, as I did of the portrait of the American Robin above. Using camera-mounted flash is easy with TTL (Through The Lens) compatible strobes. In fact, this technique is so easy, that I’m not even going to go into it, because more interesting possibilities exist.
Where I live in Alaska, the winters are long, and during the few hours of daylight, the sun is often hidden behind trees or clouds. The birds I love to photograph are usually stuck in flat, gray light. There are a few trees in my yard that the birds prefer. By setting up a flash (or two), gelled with CTO to emulate the absent sun, I’ve managed to create some well lit portraits of these guys.
The method is similar to lighting a landscape. You’ve got to choose your flash placement to avoid shadows, and since there is rarely a chance to replicate a poorly exposed shot, it’s best to get your settings right and then leave them in place throughout the shoot. In this case, I was going for an almost studio-like look, so I took advantage of the white snow as a background, making the final image appear almost as a cut-out.
I like to put my flashes atop a tall stand to get them over my head like a low angle sun. Done right, the set up and exposure takes only a few moments, and the results can be great.
Artificial light in the outdoors offers a great opportunity to create unique images. Think through your shots, consider where extra light can be added, and what role it will play in the final image. Not every situation requires it, in fact, most don’t. But there are times when that extra pop of light can take a photo from mundane to extraordinary.
Have you tried using flash with your nature or landscape photography? Please share your tips and images in the comments below.