Using your flash under the midday sun.

Using a hot shoe or auxiliary flash is confusing for many photographers, and when I casually remark that I like adding flash to all my portraits whether inside or outside, overcast or bright sunny days, I often get quizzical and disbelieving looks.

This was the case while I was photographing last weekend’s Walk for Life Relay in Kamloops. The day was sunny and bright with participants’ faces constantly affected by strong shadows. Another photographer inquired about my bracket-mounted flash, politely listened when I said I always used flash, and even put flashes onto her camera for a time. When I later viewed images on her camera’s LCD screen I could see she removed or turned the flash off resulting in unflattering shadows across subject’s faces.

Coincidentally, later that evening I read the following query in an online photographer’s forum, “I’ve been shooting headshots recently and it got me thinking a lot about metering. How do I meter for flash portrait photography on location? I know that without a flash, I would just spot meter their face, zero the meter, and snap. What happens when I have an off camera flash? Do I just meter normally then shoot? Because when I do this, once the flash goes off, the exposure would be completely different than what I’ve just metered, which would usually mean overexposed. This is so very confusing. Please shed some light on this (no pun intended).”

I recall an assignment from a photography class taken early in the 1970s. That assignment, given by our sometimes-flamboyant instructor, was to photograph someone wearing a wide brimmed hat under the midday sun. (My apologies to those that adhere to the words from Noel Coward’s words that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”).

Our assignment was to light the shadowed face under the hat and still have properly exposed surroundings. At that time flash technology produced constant light and photographers didn’t have TTL (through the lens) flash, digital cameras, or PhotoShop. The solution to the assignment was to diffuse and reduce the light in stages by placing a white handkerchief folded twice, folded once, or not at all, over the flash head until the correct amount of light “filled or opened up the deep shadow”.

Fortunately, modern cameras with TTL flash are almost foolproof, and the days of calculating restricting flash power are long gone, and only a modicum of thought is required on the photographer’s part as to how much light should be added for the subject’s exposure.

I leave my camera set to manual exposure mode. That allows me, not the camera, to choose the overall ambient exposure and to add flash to those areas that are underexposed by shadows. Given the choice of subject placement I photograph the subject with the sun at their back. I meter the existing light, set the exposure, turn on the flash, and make tests using the flash’s exposure compensation feature to increase or decrease the output level. Then I look at the camera LCD, check the histogram and look to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure. If I observe them I dial the exposure compensation down, testing again till the flashing borders disappear. (That highlight-warning feature is usually found in the camera’s menu). All one needs to do is take the time to experiment, as the subject is getting ready.

My photographs from that day are evenly exposed with attractive, open shadows, and using a flash really didn’t take much more time than if I didn’t use one.

Because many readers have indicated they are uncomfortable using flash, on Sunday, July 10th I will be offering a workshop in Kamloops on flash photography for portrait lighting indoors and outdoors, and I urge DSLR photographers to enrol and overcome their hesitancy to use flash. Participants will gain the skill and confidence to create great images using wireless lighting techniques for portraits in virtually any situation by augmenting existing light with flash. I will limit participation so please contact me if you are interested.
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