How to Use Off-camera Flash to Fix Lighting Problems for Outdoor Portraits

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Model holding flash better

When you’re taking pictures of family and friends outdoors, you are often not in control of the light, and that can lead to poor portraits.

A few of the possible problems include:

  • Raccoon eyes – deep shadows in the eye sockets (and other the nose) caused by bright overhead sunlight or light overcast skies
  • Bright background obscuring the subject’s face – although some cameras automatically compensate for it, if you’re shooting in the shade and there’s a really bright background, that can mislead your camera into underexposing the image, leaving your subject’s face too dark.
  • No control over direction of the light – the sun is here, and you are there. You can move around the person you’re photographing to get better light, but then you may lose the desired background.

With a wireless flash, these problems can be overcome, and it’s surprisingly easy. Canon’s Rebel line, D-series DSLRs and advanced G-series compact cameras let you control off-camera flash wirelessly, which opens up many possibilities when it comes to changing the quality and quantity of light that you use to photograph someone outdoors.

Raccoon eyes – below (left) is a typical portrait shot under direct midday sunlight with our model, Leanne. The sun, almost directly overhead, casts deep shadows over eye sockets, below the nose and chin, and wherever hair blocks the light. Gear: Canon EOS 70D, 85mm f/1.8 USM Canon lens. Exposure: 1/320 second at f/4.5, ISO 100.

Raccoon eyes before 600 Raccoon eyes after 600

Raccoon eyes fixed – (above right) the flash was mounted on the camera’s hot shoe and provided enough fill light to blow away the shadows, but the light is flat. Gear: same as above plus Canon 430 EX II Speedlight. Exposure: 1/250 second at f/10, ISO 100.

Raccoon eyes, cloudy skies (below left) the clouds move in and soften the light. Better, right? Well, sort of. Leanne’s eyes are still in the shadows. Gear: Canon EOS 70D, 85mm f/1.8 USM Canon lens. Exposure: 1/250th at f/3.5, ISO 100.

Raccoon lightcloud before 600 Raccoon lightcloud after 600

A lighter touch with light – (above right) in this case, less light was required to lighten the shadows, so I used the on-screen flash intensity control (on the Canon 70D, press Q and then touch the flash power icon to access this feature) and reduced the flash output. Determining the right amount of flash output is often a matter of trial and error. In this case, the default setting was too dark, +2 was too bright, but +1 was perfect. Gear: same as above plus Canon 430 EX II Speedlight. Exposure: 1/250th at f/7.1, ISO 100.

Balancing light when shooting in the shade

The ideal way to take a portrait in the shade without flash is to shoot with the bright area behind you (behind the camera). This will give you a wide light source and with nice, flattering light. However, you may not have this option, or you want to include interesting background elements that are, alas, drenched in sunlight.

While an on-camera flash will add enough light, you can add more dimensionality and features to your subject’s face by taking the flash off the camera and moving it around. By combining ambient (existing) light with your off-camera flash, you introduce infinite creative portrait-taking possibilities.

(Not sure how to use wireless? Scroll down to read our primer)

It’s best to have what flash guru Joe McNally calls a “voice-activated light holder” (also known as a human being, a friend, relative or cooperative stranger) to move around and hold the flash wherever you need it. If it’s just you and your model, however, an inexpensive light stand and shoe-mount flash adapter, such as the Flashpoint Heavy Duty Lightstand and Adorama Universal Swivel Holder, will do the job. Total cost? Less than $50!

Fixing harsh backlighting without flash

Exposed for the background – in the photo below (left), the background is perfectly exposed but Leanne, standing in the shade of a large Maple tree, is in deep shadow. Gear: Canon 70D, 85mm f/1.8 Canon Lens mounted on a Velbon GEO E535D Carbon Fibre Tripod. Exposure: 1/320 second at f/4, ISO 100.

Exposed for background Exposed for openshade

Add one stop of exposure – (above right image) better, but Leanne’s face is still too dark. Gear: same as above. Exposure: 1/200th at f/3.2, ISO 100.

Spot meter on the subject – by taking a spot meter reading you can eliminate the misleading bright background from the exposure equation and get a pretty good exposure on the face (below left). But the eyes are still too dark, and the background is getting blown out. Gear: same as above. Exposure: 1/160th at f/2.8, ISO 100.

Exposedforface Exposed for shadows

Exposed for the eyes – now you can see Leanne’s eyes clearly (above right), but overall the image is too bright, especially the background. So let’s introduce a flash and balance things out. Gear: same as above. Exposure: 1/125th at f/2.5, ISO 100.

Adding flash to balance with the ambient light

Balanced light, image below left. Now the exposure is spot on! If you hold a flash up a foot or so above your camera while shooting, you should get this kind of light. The slight angle gives Leanne’s face a bit of dimensionality. Gear: Canon 70D, 85mm f/1.8 Canon Lens, Canon 430 EX II Speedlight flash mounted on Flashpoint Heavy Duty Lightstand via an Adorama Universal Swivel Holder. Exposure: 1/200th at f/5.6, ISO 100.

Balanced flash background Balanced flash 45degrees Left

Flash at a 45 degree angle (image above right). By moving the flash (now mounted on a light stand) further to the left of the camera and about a foot above eye-level you get this classic Loop pattern portrait lighting. Note how Leanne is turned slightly towards the light, and how the light falls off her left cheek, creating a more flattering, dimensional look. Same gear and exposure as above.

Flash at 90 degree angle (image below left). Now the flash is directly to camera left, and her face is divided into light and dark halves (also known as Split Lighting). This is a more dramatic look. Same gear and exposure as above.

Balanced flash 90degrees Left Backlit flash with refl

Backlighting (above right) – even though the sun was to the right of the camera, after placing the flash above and behind and slightly to camera left, it looks like she is backlit by the sun. These are the kinds of effects you can get by moving the light around. Same gear and exposure as above.

Add a reflector

If one additional light source isn’t enough, you can easily, and inexpensively, add a second by using a reflector. The Glow 5-in-1 32-inch Reflector Kit, for $26, is a versatile option. This dramatically increases the possibilities for controlling and shaping the light, and bringing out the contours in your subject’s face.

One problem – running out of hands. The solution? Have your subject hold the reflector and compose a nice tight headshot.

Balanced flash 45 degree refl2

The reflector adds a new dimension. Here Leanne is holding a silver reflector to her left, which is bringing light back to her face in an approximately 2:1 lighting ratio (the reflected light is half that of the direct light from the flash). Notice how the more angular cross-light brings out her facial features. Same gear as above plus Glow 5-in-1 32-inch Reflector Kit. Exposure: 1/160th at f/7.1, ISO 100.

What if you take away the reflector and put a flash in the model’s hands?

Model holding flash better

Flashie? In another setup, Leanne is holding the flash to her side as the sole light source. This is kind of like a “selfie” but with a flash.

Model holding flash vertical

She’s holding the light. In this tight headshot, Leanne is still holding the flash in the same position as above, but with a reflector to camera left adding light on the other side of her face.

Adding an umbrella

While a stand-alone flash (or one used in tandem with a reflector) is great for close shots, light falls off quickly and may not illuminate the person in a longer shot. To solve this, consider adding an umbrella to your arsenal. This will enlarge the light source and will result in more even illumination when shooting a full body or ¾ length portrait. Using an umbrella is worth an article of its own.

Umbrella sidelight modelfull

While a stand-alone flash (or one used in tandem with a reflector) placed near a subject can be great for close shots, it won’t evenly illuminate your portrait subject in a wider shot such as this one. Normally, the solution is to move the flash farther away, but in this scene, an outdoor porch, there was a wall immediately to the left of the camera. In this situation, bounce the flash off an umbrella. This will enlarge the light source to create more even illumination. Be sure to increase flash power approximately one stop to compensate for the light loss that results from bouncing the flash into the umbrella. (Using an umbrella is worth an article of its own!)

Step-by-step instructions on how to trigger Canon off-camera flash wirelessly

Here are the step-by-step directions for triggering a Canon 430 EX II wireless Canon flash from the Canon 70D. If you’re using another camera, check your manual for wireless flash instructions. Among other Canon systems, the directions will be similar.

flashsettings

  1. Turn the flash on, then press and hold the Zoom button for a second or two. You’ll see a new flash icon and Ch 1 Slave A appear in the LCD screen (see photo above).
  2. Turn the camera on and pop up the flash
  3. Go to Menu; in the first tab (camera operation), choose Flash Control, then scroll down to Built-in flash function setting, select “Wireless Func.” and choose the middle setting of the single flash (see below) Note: Although the on-camera flash is flipped up, it will not fire during the exposure. Rather, it will flash a split-second before the exposure, which triggers the off-camera flash to fire during exposure, so your only source of flash illumination during exposure will be the off-camera flash.

canon-built-in-flash-function-setting

Hopefully you can take these off-camera flash tips and apply them in your photography to help you make better portraits outdoors. If you have any additional questions or tips please share in the comments below.

Thanks to Adorama to sponsoring this series of articles by Mason Resnick.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mason Resnick has been educating photographers for over 30 years via articles he's written as an editor and contributor for Popular Photography and Modern Photography magazines, as well as for a variety of web sites. He's also a freelance photographer based in New Jersey and has been doing street photography since 1977, when he studied with Garry Winogrand. Visit his web site, or read his blog.

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you Mason. Very good explanations, great examples, and something I will utilise in the future.

    Thanks for taking the time to share.

  • Thanks for all the examples and exif data in the post Mason. Interesting idea to have the subject hold the flash themselves. In times where I am just with friends and thus did not bring a light stand with me, I sometimes hold the flash off camera for a “quick & dirty” strobist shot, but I will think about having the subject hold the flash themselves next time.

    I shoot on location in Florida, often on the beach and even near sunset time the light can be harsh, so using speedlights off camera is key to getting well exposed portraits. To see what it is like to make photos on the beaches in Florida, I post about almost all my shoots including exif data:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/tag/off-camera-flash

  • mcr

    Thanks, Jason, appreciate the positive feedback. Nice work on your web site 🙂
    -Mason

  • mcr

    Thank you!
    -Mason

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    excellent. I wander by looking straight on flash will cause eyes problem ??

  • No flash doesn’t cause permanent damage to the eyes.

  • mcr

    As Darlene says, looking straight into the flash won’t cause permanent eye damage, but it can be uncomfortable for your subject and cause momentary blindness or spots. It looks like the model is staring into the flash, but I instructed her to look at the blinking infrared light below the flash to help minimize the temporary discomfort. Hope this helps!
    -Mason

  • mma173

    I always take the flash with me when shooting outdoor and always get the question “Why are you using flash in daylight ?” 🙂

    Thank very much for this post
    BTY, may be you should have mentioned something about gels. The only flash I have is a bit warm so I have to always us mild cooling gel.

  • mcr

    LOL, I get that, too!

    BTW regarding gels, have you seen this article?

    https://digital-photography-school.com/spice-up-your-outdoor-photos-with-wireless-off-camera-flash-and-gels/

    -Mason

  • Craig

    Mason – Thank you for this. There are many helpful articles available on DPS, but I have to say for me this was one of the best. The subject matter has been one I needed help on and this is great.

  • mcr

    Thank you for your kind words! 🙂

    -Mason

  • Farzam Berenji

    I have a question. Does anyone know if I should buy a SB-700 and SB-600 flashlight for my Nikon D7000 or just one SB-700 plus a Wireless speedlight commander? Which combination is better?

  • mcr

    You can use the D7000’s pop-up flash as a commander, so an additional wireless commander may not be necessary for wireless flash operation. Try shooting this way, and if the pop-up flash’s line-of-sight wireless control isn’t working well enough for you, then you may want to invest in a wireless commander. -Mason

  • Dan

    I use the pop-up flash as a commander and it works well on the D800 (now that they fixed the issue) the only thing is that when I am doing portraits the subjects, if they are prone to blinking, WILL blink in the photo because of the pop up flash. But I still have been very successful with using the pop up flash. As soon as I get some extra cash however, I will be investing in a wireless trigger system.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much for the information.

  • COLL

    Why only Canon examples? According to dXoLabs tests, the top three cameras are Nikon, Sony and Pentax. Surely people should be buying and using one of these three

  • jenn6566

    would the same rules apply to group photos outdoors?

  • mcr

    I used my personal camera for this assignment, which is Canon. The lighting principles, however, apply to any camera with wireless flash capabilities. – Mason

  • mcr

    For groups, the main goal is to fill in unflattering shadows. I don’t worry about fancy flash angles because this can introduce unwanted shadows cast from one person onto the next in the group. Instead, I use on-camera or slightly off-camera flash, and try to balance it with the ambient light. – Mason

  • Rick

    I would suggest the SB910. You get many more features. Either way, get them the same. I use an SB800 and SB900 and going between the two interfaces is a nuisance. I have wished many times they were both the same. I prefer the SB900. Both of these are out of production now which is why I recommended the SB910.

  • arkhunter

    Just an extra tidbit, you may still get a little flash form the popup, using it as commander (at least on my Canon 7D) for the remote flash. I can see two catchlights on things I’ve shot before. Not horrible, but just a note. (set the same way as noted, with only the remote supposedly firing)

  • Di Darlow

    So great that you are prepared to share this info with us Mason. I still have a problem though. I know that the light will change from situation to situation, but how can I predict what to set the FLASH to, if I move further away from the subject should I use that zoom button, or just adjust the flash up or the aperture wider. I am trying to figure out why everyone else seems to just USE A FLASH, whereas I have endless problems in getting sufficient output even though I shoot at 1/1 with a 530 Speedlite. What am I doing wrong.

  • mcr

    Hi Di,

    I would need more information. What is your flash to subject distance? Is it possible your flash is simply too far away? Also, have you tried using TTL rather than manually setting the power?

    The best way to be absolutely sure you are getting enough flash intensity is to invest in a flash meter and use that to establish flash exposure. The Sekonic L-308S is a good one.

    -Mason

  • Di Darlow

    its difficult to say because I seem to have hassles so often. Let me give you a scenario though. If I stood 3m away from the bride and groom in a dimly lit church, what would you set your m flash to as a start if you didnt have a meter. ETTL seems to be even dimmer – even at +3 so I try to control with m. Also if you were in bright light and just wanted to get rid of the raccoon eyes at the same distance, where would you start.

  • To add one more trick in your bag, you might consider shooting with a combination of ND filters and strobes to balance the light.

  • This was awesome info and I want to say a great BIG thank you for sharing all these details.

  • Tetteh Agyeman

    u guys have helped alot thanks sooooooo much

  • Amynta

    I have a second tripod and an older digital camera with a flash. I’m Wondering if I could force flash it just as I shoot for cheap secondary flash? Or user a cell phone flash somehow?

  • mcr

    I haven’t seen that done–the camera would need some kind of built-in transceiver that would set off the flash, and I don’t know if such a thing exists. (If anyone does know of such an item, please share!).

    Even if there was a way to rig up such a system, it may be more trouble than it’s worth. IMHO it makes more sense to invest in an inexpensive used wireless flash that’s compatible with your system. – Mason

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