How to shoot portraits on location with outdoor flash
Using flash on location is one of the best things you can to really push your outdoor portraits. Often, the natural light might give you exactly what you want, but often it does not. The sun might be in slightly the wrong position to give you the background you want. Or a lack of cloud cover might make it not as soft as you’d like. Too much cloud cover could make it too soft. And sometimes, you just want to get creative.
This video from Mark Cleghorn for Elinchrom shows us several ways to utilise flash on location. There’s a lot of information packed into this 4 minute video. It’s a lot like working with flash in the studio, except you have to take the ambient light into account, too. You may want to use it as a gentle fill, or you may want to try to overpower it completely. But without flash, your options are often limited.
Mark talks us through several quick setups and ideas for using flash on location. They all follow the same basic process, though. That process begins with figuring out where you want your key light to be, and building from there. The first setup shows a traditional 45° portrait lighting setup like we might see in the studio.
Depending on the lighting of the environment, you may need to add a second or third light. A second light has been added behind the subject to give a subtle highlight on the darker side of her hair. This stops it blending into the background. In the next shot, the light has also been moved in front of the subject, as an overhead on-axis key light.
Just like working with flash in the studio, the position of our lights on location is important. This is why when you’re not using flash, and just dealing with the, there are better times of the day to get a certain look than others. In the early morning and before sunset are ideal times for portraits because the sun is at a relative height that closely matches studio strobes and provides a pleasing look.
That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot portraits during other times of the day, but you’ll usually want the help of a little flash. Overpowering the sun is a technique that many attempt when they first use flash outside of the studio. We want that beautiful bright background to be crushed right down while our subject still stands out.
With speedlights, this can be difficult. If you want to get some distance between your light and your subject or want to use a large modifier, they simply don’t often have the power. Today, though, we have far more options. Bigger and more powerful flashes are available that can easily be taken out on location. A lot of them are now incorporating some version of high speed sync to let you go beyond your camera’s sync speed and still use flash.
To get a little more creative, you can use gels. There’s a couple of different ways you can use gels to affect your photography on location. With film, gels were generally used in order to correct a light to match the film stock being used. With digital, we have other options. We could use gels as a way to add a splash of colour to our images, keeping our white balance set for the ambient light.
Or, as Mark did in this video, we can adjust our camera’s white balance to match the gel used on the key light. This lets allows our subject to appear correctly while throwing the background colour off. This can be a great way to add mood or feeling to your image.
Telling your camera to white balance for incandescent lighting and then gelling your flashes with CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) will send your environment blue. This can give the feeling of a cold environment, or you can even use it to turn night into day. I’ve used this technique in the past to simulate night time shots that were actually taken in the afternoon.
While taking flashes out on location is nothing new, it has recently seen a huge boom in popularity. Speedlights have been great, but with limited power and options, they don’t always give us what we want. But with more manufacturers than ever now offering portable battery powered solutions with a lot of power, our real options have only just opened up.
Do lights use lights on location? Or do you just stick to natural light and maybe a reflector? What’s stopping you from getting out on location with flash? What are your favourite lights for using on location? And what tips do you have for those who want to start using flash outdoors? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.