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How to Use Flash in Nature and Landscape Photography

How to use flash in your nature photos

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. However, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I put my camera back on the tripod, walked over, and composed a shot. With a click, I snapped the shutter:

CO KenCaryl evening 30Dec2011 6

The image was decent – it featured 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.

And then: “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 it still wasn’t right. The light coming from the flash was too cool – it lacked the warmth I wanted. Digging back in my bag, I emerged with a pack of gels, slapped a half cut of CTO (color temperature orange) over the flash, and clicked off another photo.

“Now we’re talking,” I muttered. Thanks to the flash, a warm beam of light had 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. Here’s the image I captured:

CO KenCaryl evening 30Dec2011 7

For most photographers, flash is relegated to the studio. If it is used outside, it is usually restricted to portraiture. But there is so much more potential for artificial light.

Landscape and nature photography can often benefit from a little flash, and with some creativity, it can bring out the best in your images. In this article, I share a few tips to help you start using flash for amazing nature and landscape photos!

How to enhance your nature and landscape photos with flash

If you want to harness the power of flash for outstanding photos taken outdoors, here are some guidelines to keep in mind!

Essential gear

To get started with outdoor flash photography, you’ll need a few things in your bag:

  • At least one flash
  • Some kind of remote trigger (I use cheap and simple wireless triggers I found on Amazon for a few bucks)
  • A selection of multi-colored gels
  • A flash stand or assistant
  • For night photography, a strong headlamp or hand-held flashlight is a good addition to the kit
A windmill stands in the garden of the Finca Santa Anita in Salta Province, Argentina.
A windmill stands in the garden of the Finca Santa Anita in Salta Province, Argentina.

General advice

As with almost all flash use, for best results, you’ve got to get the light off your camera.

On-camera 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.

The 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.

Scrubby pines grow from the rocks of the Dakota Hogback in the foothills of Colorado outside Denver, late evening.
Scrubby pines grow from the rocks of the Dakota Hogback in the foothills of Colorado outside Denver, late evening. Notice how my flash brightened up the rocks and tree in the bottom right-hand corner.

Imitating natural light on the landscape

The near-dark hours before dawn and just after sunset, as well as full night, are the most suitable times to add a bit of flash to a landscape or nature 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 direct the beam just where it is needed.

A Western Scrub Jay perches in a tree in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains outside Denver, CO, USA.
A Western Scrub Jay perches in a tree in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains outside Denver, CO, USA. Flash can work for this type of nature photography, too; you just have to consider the type of look you want!

Adjusting the exposure when using flash

Choosing the right exposure for outdoor flash photography can be tough. My best advice is to take a guess, capture a shot or two, and then check the results on your LCD. You’ll generally find you need to adjust the flash brightness, placement, or the ambient light exposure, and that’s okay!

When using flash, remember this:

Adjust the brightness of the ambient light with the shutter speed, and adjust the exposure of the artificial (flash) light 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.

How to use the flash for more artistic nature photos

What if you don’t want to use the flash to create a natural-looking landscape, but you instead want to produce an artistic effect?

An artistic look is more straightforward, but light direction, intensity, and color are important. I like to 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, the foreground starts to fade to black, like this:

AK FAI aurora 112073 17
The foreground trees are completely detailless, but they’re a lot darker than I’d like.

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:

Aurora with artificial lighting
A bit of artificial light can transform a dark foreground!

Light from a typical LED is very cold, but cover it with CTO gel, and nice warm tones result.

Note: Light painting is a popular technique, but it does require some practice to ensure your subject is evenly lit and not too bright. Mixing light painting and ambient light can be a very effective way to even out the brightness in an image and compensate for highlights.

A while back, while in Argentina, I photographed a historic farmhouse in the late evening. Bright porch lights on the house needed to be evened out, so I painted some key parts of the scene. Here’s what resulted:

Arg Salta SantAnita house night 104133 18

A warning: Light painting 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.

How to use flash to photograph wildlife

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). Shaded light is flat and boring, but with careful use of flash, you can replace that bland light with some nice directional illumination:

CO Dec2009 AMRO 3

When using flash with a long telephoto lens, you can often get away with on-camera, or bracket-mounted flash, as I did for my American Robin portrait 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 – unless I bring out my flash!

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:

RBNU 21Dec2011 2

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.

For this next image, 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:

ORJU 22Dec2011 2

I like to put my flashes atop a tall stand to get them over my head like a low-angle sun. Done right, the setup and exposure take only a few moments, and the results can be great!

Capture some amazing nature and landscape photos – with flash!

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.

Now over to you:

Have you tried using flash in your nature or landscape photography? Will you consider using it in the future? Please share your tips and images in the comments below!

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David Shaw
David Shaw

is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

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