Using a hot shoe or auxiliary flash is confusing for many photographers, and when I say that I prefer adding flash to all my portraits whether inside or outside, on overcast or bright sunny days, and that I rarely make a portrait without one, will often produce quizzical and disbelieving looks from photographers.
I got one of those looks recently at a wedding I was photographing under a cloudless +35C day. The unforgiving conditions were sunny and bright with participants’ faces constantly affected by strong shadows. A guest, wielding a sophisticated DSLR that was sporting a very wide angle lens, inquired about my bracket-mounted flash and politely listened when I said I always used flash, however, I could tell that he walked away still confused as to why I would bother to use a flash when there was plenty of daylight. I suspect that the unflattering shadows across the subjects’ faces were not all that evident on his camera’s LCD, or he just did not see the problem. Besides, he might have thought himself more of an event chronicler, or, because of the wide-angle lens he was employing, an artist.
I read a query in an online photographer’s forum asking, “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…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 also recall a friend’s class assignment to photograph someone wearing a wide brimmed hat under the midday sun. (My apologies to those that adhere to the words from Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”).
She explained, “Our assignment was to light the shadowed face under the hat and still have properly exposed surroundings.” At that time flash technology only produced constant light. The solution was to diffuse the light by placing a white handkerchief folded once or twice over the flash head to open up the deep shadow.
Fortunately, modern TTL flash is almost foolproof and only a modicum of thought is required on the part of the photographer as to how much light should be added for the subject’s exposure.
My camera is usually 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. I meter the existing light, set the exposure, and make tests using the flash’s exposure compensation feature to increase or decrease the output level. I then check the histogram to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure, and if I observe them I dial the exposure compensation down, till the flashing borders disappear on further test shots. That highlight-warning feature is set in the camera’s menu.
My photographs from that wedding day are evenly exposed with attractive, open shadows and do not appear as if there was a flash involved. Besides, using a flash really was not much more effort than if I didn’t, and I did not have to spend hours using postproduction software to lighten and darken my subjects from that day.
I use a bracket that places the flash high above the camera that can be quickly removed if I want to light the subject from one side. The bracket isn’t a must, however, I recommend a connecting cord from camera to flash so it can be used off camera.
I also advise reviewing the camera manual to determine if it has a feature called “high speed sync” that allows for a high shutter speed when using a flash. That’s a discussion for another time, but I recommend doing some recon on the web where there is lots of information.
Blending flash with ambient light isn’t really a mystery. The combination of off-camera flash, and a light meter to measure ambient and flash contributions, will give you complete control to craft portraits your friends and family will love.
A burst of flash will reveal your subject’s eyes and soften shadows all round, so it’s definitely a good thing and will improve your pictures.
I appreciate comments. Thanks, John
My website is at www.enmanscamera.com