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Create Better Outdoor Portraits Using Electronic Flash

EDITOR’S NOTE: Photofocus is proud to announce the addition of Andrew Darlow as a regular contributor to our site.

Post by Andrew Darlow

Electronic flash has many uses when outside. For starters, flash can reduce or eliminate “raccoon eyes,” a look that can occur due to shadows being cast under the eyes when the sun is high in the sky. “Fill flash” is a term generally used to describe the use of flash to “fill in” underexposed areas. Fill flash can be enabled in several ways: by using the small flash found on many point-and-shoot cameras; by using a camera’s pop-up flash; with a detachable flash unit (examples are Speedlites, made by Canon, or Speedlights, made by Nikon); or with an off-camera flash unit, such as monobloc flash units like the AlienBees brand of strobes. The icon on most point-and-shoot cameras to turn on fill flash is usually a lightning bolt-press the flash button until you see the lightning bolt stay on (with some cameras, you need to be in “Manual mode” to make the flash fire in bright light).

A removable flash unit that sits in your camera’s hot shoe, or an off-camera flash is generally best. That’s because you can separate your camera lens from the flash, which reduces the chance of red-eye in your subjects, plus you can create larger catch lights in your subjects’ eyes by using a diffuser over the flash. Diffusion options range from homemade diffusers made from tracing paper and tape, to products like the LumiQuest BigBounce diffuser. An off-camera flash has the added benefit of allowing you to light from any angle.

It’s important to point out the importance of catchlights-they can help transform a photo from “ho-hum” to “holy-cow”! Flash opens up so many possibilities for creating distinctive (or in some cases, problematic) catch lights.

I photographed the little girl and her Pug above on a sunny day at about 1 P.M. in late August. An off-camera compact flash unit (Vivitar 285HV, a “classic” and widely available for under $100 new) was placed slightly camera right with a large diffuser about two feet (.6 meters) from the subjects. I used manual mode on the flash and camera to find the right balance between the natural light and flash.

I generally use Manual mode on both my camera and flash when outside. To do that, I usually set my shutter speed between 1/60 and 1/125 sec to help ensure sharpness, and I set my aperture and ISO to expose the background properly before turning on the flash. Then I adjust the flash power and distance from my subject(s) until I’m happy. There are more automated ways to get great looking outdoor images with flash (especially with matching flash and camera brands). Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) is the primary tool offered on most camera/flash systems. Test it at about -2 to start, and bracket the flash intensity (-1, -3, etc.) to see the effects.

An outstanding resource on flash photography covering Canon-brand cameras and flash units (but helpful in general for understanding this subject and more), can be found here: http://photonotes.org/articles/eos-flash/

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