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How To Use Flash Outdoors | Flash And Ambient Light Balancing For A Natural Effect

By Holly Roa on July 13th 2017

It’s a funny thing how there is a tendency for those who consider themselves to be ‘natural light photographers’ will often express a “fear” of using flash. What’s even funnier is that there is an equal and opposite reaction from the other side. Those well-versed in flash photography will often become so comfortable controlling all the aspects of lighting that they get nervous when they must rely solely on what lighting is available. But what about the best of both worlds?; mixing flash and natural light?

When balancing flash and natural light, you can swing it in either direction – toward the flash for a dramatic look or toward the natural light for a subtly lit look. In fact you can get both looks with either if done right. Both have their uses and their place.

[REWIND:] 8 STEPS TO PERFECTING EACH SCENE & IMAGE WHEN USING OFF-CAMERA FLASH

Many people prefer a natural light look, but if you’re only using what’s available you’re leaving yourself at the mercy of nature, who can be fickle and often operates on a whim. Not only that, you’re playing against a powerful force when you schedule your shoot: the sun. For natural light photographers, adding flash will let you take command of aspects of your shoot that you otherwise would have no control over. By learning how to use flash, you are empowered to shoot regardless of time of day and weather.

The balancing act is simple in theory: lower flash power combined with longer shutter speeds offer a more natural look, and higher flash power with shorter shutter speeds will create something more dramatic looking that no one would ask, “did they light that?”

WORK WITH YOUR CAMERA’S FLASH SYNC SPEED

If you are new to flash, you are probably used to being able to shoot at any shutter speed you want. 1/8000? No problem! But when you introduce flash, you will be working with your camera’s flash sync speed, which is likely around 1/200. This means that if you shoot faster than 1/200th (or whatever your camera’s flash sync speed is) with your flash, you will run into issues, like black bands appearing in your image. But, when it’s bright you’ve got to do something to shoot at those slower shutter speeds and not blow out your image, and that something is put a neutral density (ND) filter on your lens.

*Of course there’s high speed sync as the caveat to all of this, but that’s for later.

Neutral density filters reduce the light that enters your lens by a designated amount without adding a color cast.  Though, it’s worth noting that not all ND filters are created equal, and some of the bargain options will, in fact ,not be truly neutral and will require some color-finessing in post.

If you are shooting in light that fits within your flash’s sync speed for your desired exposure, you can skip the ND filter and move on to the next step.

DIAL IN YOUR AMBIENT EXPOSURE FIRST

Look at the scene in which you’ll be shooting and think of how you want the background to look, without paying as much attention to how the subject will be exposed, again working within the parameters of your camera’s flash sync speed. Once you’ve got that look dialed in, we can go on to the next step – adding the flash.

NOW ADD FLASH

A quick primer for those who aren’t familiar – when working with flash, your aperture will determine how much of the flash gets to the sensor. This means that if you’ve chosen a wide aperture for your desired background look, you will need less flash power to get your ideal exposure.

Now, if you’ve added a 5 stop ND filter in order to shoot with that wide aperture, you will need to add some flash power to compensate for that. The same goes for ISO, which increases or decreases your sensor’s overall sensitivity to light. If you are shooting in the evening and have bumped up your ISO to get your desired background exposure but your subject still needs a kiss of light to stand out, that raised ISO will cut down on how much flash power is required for your desired exposure.

LIGHT CONTROL

For these example images, we’ve used a reflector to bounce flash onto our subject, but whatever modifier you choose, make sure that you are paying attention to where it is aiming your flash. Wherever your flash hits will be made brighter, and you want to make sure that’s only hitting where you want it.
Another consideration with the light is color temperature. Flashes are more or less daylight balanced, which refers to mid-day light, so if you are shooting during golden hour, a CTO Gel will help keep your flash looking “believable.” It will mimic the golden light found during that time of day.

For more content like this and in more detail with video demonstration, be sure to check out our Lighting 101 workshop and if you’d like access to our full collection of Premium workshops, become a subscriber!

About

Seattle based photographer with a side of videography, specializing in work involving animals, but basically a Jill of all trades.
Instagram: @HJRphotos

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