The Advantages of Using Flash for Outdoor Portrait Photography

Flash for Outdoor Portrait Photography

You might not immediately think to use your flash outdoors during the day (since we’ve been taught early on by our phones and compact digital cameras that flash really only comes on when it’s fairly dark already), but it can actually give you several advantages, especially when it comes to shooting portraits.

Outdoor photography isn’t like being in a studio – you can’t just change the direction of the sun or stop clouds from blocking it, just as you can’t always clear your background of a crowd of people. You have to work with what you have when you have it.  And this is where having an external flash comes in handy.

Exposing For a Poorly Lit Subject

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In this photo, you can quickly tell that our subject is underexposed. When you have a bright background, your camera’s light meter will try to retain detail in the highlights, but that’s going to leave our subject in the shadows.

To fix this, I introduced flash, as you can see in the photo below.

120511.232404 Flash for Outdoor Portrait spinlight 360

You see how much better and more even her skin tone is once I introduced an external flash. She looks healthier, punchier, and it even gave her eyes a catchlight, which to me, really enhances most photos.

Dealing With Overcast Conditions and Shade

Generally we like shooting our subjects in the shade because it softens up the otherwise harsh light from the sun. But this comes with its own problems: flat lighting, higher ISO (more noise), and dark eye sockets. When your ambient lighting is flat, it also creates a dull look, which may not be the look you’re going for. Sometimes people prefer a punchier look, so for that, you could use an external flash.

In the following photo taken on a sunny day, you’ll notice the ambient light is coming from the right, but since our subject is turned to her left, her face was left in the shade. However, using a fill flash, I was able to open up the shadows and get her skin to look much more even and smooth. Otherwise, she would have had raccoon eyes and other harsh shadows under her chin and nose, which isn’t flattering.

120506.030628 Flash for Outdoor Portrait spinlight 360

Controlling the Amount of Light to Reveal More Detail

When using an external flash, you’re introducing another light source, one that you can both control and direct. I like using it because it allows me to get more creative with my photos and really capture the look I want.

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In the photo above, my subject was being directly lit by the sun, but it was casting a harsh shadow across her cheek. I liked the dramatic look it gave me, but the transition from highlights to shadows was too aggressive. To soften it up, I introduced flash light and was able to reveal some more details, ultimately getting the look I was after.

Flash for Outdoor Portrait Photography Takeaways

I know a lot of photographers who never touch flash, and especially not outdoors, because they like the soft feel they get from solely using available natural light. If you think the same way, then that’s completely okay, but I hope I at least got you thinking about the possibilities and advantages of using a fill flash. Even with very limited power, it could help to enhance your photos, make your subjects pop, or allow you to get more creative. Everything just looks crisper, sharper, and more vibrant the more light you have, so I invite you to try your external flash outdoors, at least once.

– Yishai Shapir


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Posted on

December 21, 2015

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