Using Fill Flash for Outdoor Portraits

By Jeff Greene

Here’s a simple lighting tip to vastly improve your outdoor portraits and candid photos.

Use your flash.

I know, I know… you’re probably thinking that it’s already nice and bright outside so why would you need to use a flash?    This is why…

IMG_3111 edited

I’ve posed Eric with his back directly to the sun to eliminate any harsh light being cast on his face and to also create a nice hair light accent. The ambient exposure (1/125 sec @ f/5.6  ISO 100) is accurate since I have nice detail in the background, however, this places Eric’s facial features in deep shadow and makes his eyes look lifeless. By adding some flash I can remedy that…

IMG_3112 edited

Now the exposure is balanced with the ambient background light unchanged and controlled by the camera’s settings, while the main lighting on Eric is provided by the flash.  Look closely and you’ll see that he also has some nice catchlights in his eyes.

It’s important to remember that when shooting with Speedlights you are controlling two separate light sources and two distinct exposures, ambient and flash. The ambient light is controlled with the camera’s exposure settings, but the flash is separate and controlled by adjusting it’s output.

Eric B&A
With and without fill flash. Both exposures are 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 ISO 100.

Let’s look at a more challenging example…

1/125 sec @ f/5.6 ISO 100

My first priority was to achieve an accurate and appealing ambient exposure. While the ambient exposure is technically correct in this first image, the glare is washing out the rich color of the red barn rendering the background dull and lifeless.

1/60 sec @f/5.6 ISO 100 – with polarizing filter

By adding a polarizing filter, I can eliminate the glare which then reveals the rich underlying colors vastly improving the background.  But Konrad is still very underexposed.
Time to add some flash…

IMG_9877 edited
1/60 sec @ f/5.6 ISO 100 – with polarizer filter and flash (-2/3 stops)

To balance the flash with the ambient light, I dialed the flash down a bit by -2/3 stops. Full power was too bright and the adjustment only affected the flash output, not the original camera exposure for the ambient background light.  Like I mentioned above, you are controlling two separate light sources and two distinct exposures, ambient and flash. Ambient is controlled by the camera’s exposure settings, flash is controlled by adjusting the power setting (Full to 1/128 power) or Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC)

Konrad 3up

Here’s the progression for Konrad’s portrait. These are the original captures, I applied additional adjustments and retouching later in post processing.

Using flash outdoors is quite simple and will significantly improve your photos.  Just follow these three simple steps for quick and simple outdoor portraits.
1) Pose subject with back to the sun.
2) Determine ambient exposure for background
3) Use fill flash for subject and adjust to balance with ambient light.

Jeff Greene Digital Imaging Workshops
If you would like to learn more about Speedlite flash photography techniques, I teach a series of classes and workshops offering beginner to advanced levels of Speedlite flash techniques.

Upcoming Classes
Canon Speedlite 101
August 15th, 2015
Kenmore Camera

Speedlight Intensive
August 29th, 2015
Kenmore Camera

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