Focused Insight Blog

Perfecting Outdoor Lighting and Flash

Perfecting Outdoor Lighting and Flash

May, 19th 2023

Outdoor photography has a unique charm and offers a limitless canvas. From the soft shadows of an overcast day to the golden hues of a setting sun… Each scene offers endless creative opportunities. Especially when you use flash! As weird as it may sound to some, using a flash outdoors can be a great way to add dimension to your shots, eliminate some shadows and bring out more vibrance. It helps capture the beauty of nature while presenting the subject better for the perfect shot.

So, we’ll dive into the world of outdoor photography and explore how flash along with ambient light can bring shots to a whole new level. To create visually stunning and professionally lit shots that are sure to drop your jaw.

Now, step outside and take a breath of fresh air… let’s start capturing the beauty of the world around us!

The first step to mastering outdoor lighting and flash is understanding how to work with natural light. From the time of day and weather conditions to the direction of light. These will all play a significant role in the quality and mood of your shots.

Time of Day

The time of day significantly affects the quality and direction of light. 

Best time to shoot?… Golden hours. This occurs shortly after sunrise and just before sunset as it often provides the most aesthetically pleasing light – it’s soft, warm, and creates long, interesting shadows that add depth to your images. If you’re planning a landscape shoot in a serene forest during the golden hours, you’ll be rewarded with long and intriguing shadows that add drama, while enhancing the textures of the forest trees and the tranquility of the scene.  

Next, we have the ‘blue hour’. This is the period of twilight in the morning or evening when the sun is below the horizon and indirect sunlight is evenly diffused. The result is a blue hue in the sky that can range from a rich, deep blue to a cooler, pastel shade. 

Now, the most common, midday light. As you can imagine, throughout the day the light is more harsh and can create unflattering shadows. However, it can also be used to create dramatic effects and emphasize texture. Especially with a little help from flash to drop the unflattering shadows.

Weather Conditions

As you can imagine, varying weather has a big impact. Overcast skies diffuse sunlight and reduce shadows, which produces softer light that can be ideal for portraits or certain types of landscapes. So, think of it as a massive natural diffuser by softening shadows and distributing light evenly. Which will reduce the risk of overexposure or harshly lit faces when shooting portraits. 

Other conditions including rain can create dramatic lighting conditions, while fog can add a moody and mysterious atmosphere to your photos. Fog definitely is fun to play with and widely popular for those mystic shots.

Understanding Direction of Light

The direction of light has a great impact on the mood and depth of your shots. Front lighting illuminates your subject evenly, but can sometimes appear flat. 

With side lighting, more depth and texture can be created to emphasize shadows and highlights. However, they can also create long harsh shadows if the light source is not diffused. These shadows can obscure important details or create unwanted contrasts in your image.

And we have backlighting. Which can create a silhouette effect or a halo of light around your subject. But, you run the risk of lens flare, trouble focusing and an unclear look at your subject.

Now as great as natural light is – and it is my personal favorite – relying solely on it has its limitations as we just discussed. This is where using your camera’s flash effectively will be a game-changer.

The goal of using flash outdoors isn’t to overpower the natural light, but to complement it. It’s like adding spices to a dish… you want to enhance the flavor, not drown it out. By adjusting your flash power (the level of spice), you can balance your flash with the ambient light to create a beautifully lit and natural-looking shot.

To do this, you will need to choose the right flash unit for your camera and be aware of the lighting conditions you are shooting in. If you are shooting in bright sunlight, you will likely need a more powerful flash unit than if you are shooting in overcast or shaded conditions…

Picture this… you’re on a gorgeous beach and the sun is setting, casting a beautiful golden light across the sky. The sun behind your subject with a dreamy halo effect around their hair. Creating a stunning silhouette… But, leaving their face in the shadows. This is where flash comes to the rescue! 

By adding a touch of flash, you can illuminate the shadows to bring out the details in your subject’s face and outfit. Which will tame the harsh shadows without losing that golden-hour glow. This will make your subject look flawless in this lighting condition rather than just a silhouette against the setting sun. 

Now, when the subject is backlit or in shadow like this, I would add ‘fill flash’ to illuminate the shadows and just enough flash power to bring out the details without losing the natural ambient glow of the gorgeous sunset. Too much flash can overpower that natural light… Which we don’t want.

Sounds great, right? Now how do you adjust the camera to work perfectly with the flash?…

Well, we need to understand the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This is key to achieving this balance. Here are some tips to help you manage your camera settings for a perfectly lit outdoor shot:

Aperture

Aperture controls how much light enters the camera from your flash to create a balance between your flash and ambient light. 

A narrower aperture (higher f-number) lets in less light and increases your depth of field. Which is great when shooting natural landscapes and architecture as it  captures as much detail as possible. The result is a striking and sharp shot with interesting light.  A wider aperture (lower f-number) will let in more light from your flash and create a shallower depth of field. Which can help draw attention to your subject and create a dreamy, bokeh-filled background.

Shutter Speed

Experiment with shutter speed to control the amount of ambient light that’s captured. Faster shutter speeds let in less ambient light, while slower shutter speeds let in more. But, unless your flash and camera supports high-speed sync, you’ll be limited to maximum shutter speed (typically around 1/200th – 1/250th of a second) when using flash.

ISO

The ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. While a higher ISO will make both the ambient light and the flash brighter, a lower ISO will make them darker. So, adjust your ISO to control the overall brightness of both the ambient light and the flash. Keep in mind that higher ISOs can introduce noise into your image, so use the lowest ISO possible for the desired exposure.

Outdoor photography often involves dealing with harsh light, but your flash doesn’t have to add to the harshness. By using modifiers like a softbox, umbrella, reflector or diffuser, you can soften the light from your flash, just like how clouds soften sunlight. This results in more flattering, natural-looking light.

Well, we need to understand the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This is key to achieving this balance. Here are some tips to help you manage your camera settings for a perfectly lit outdoor shot:

Portraits at High Noon

High noon is often considered a challenging time for photography due to the harsh, overhead sunlight that can create unflattering shadows on your subject’s face. However, it’s the most common for those senior photos… With the help of a fill flash or a reflector, you can counteract these shadows easily.

For example, imagine shooting a model in a bright, sunflower field at midday. By using a fill flash, you can eliminate the harsh shadows under your subjects eyes and nose, making sure their face is well-lit and visible. Alternatively, a reflector could bounce the sunlight back onto the model’s face, softening the shadows.

Or, imagine you’re shooting a family picnic in the park. By using a diffuser on your flash, you can create a softer, more even light that eliminates harsh shadows and gives your subjects that “lit from within” look that everyone loves.

Golden Hour Landscapes

While natural light alone can create stunning landscape shots during this time, introducing artificial light can add an extra layer of depth and interest to your images.

Imagine shooting a beautiful mountain range with a hiker in the foreground. By using an off-camera flash, you could add a rim light to the hiker, separating them from the background and making them “pop” against the stunning backdrop.

Blue Hour Cityscapes

During this time, the deep blue sky provides a beautiful contrast for warm artificial lights, like street lamps or lit windows in a cityscape.

Imagine shooting a cityscape during the blue hour. While the ambient light provides a stunning backdrop, you might decide to highlight a particular subject in the foreground, like a street performer. By using a softbox or umbrella with your flash, you could gently illuminate the performer without overpowering the ambient light.

Nighttime Portraits

Nighttime can offer a fun and creative challenge for outdoor portraits. By using a flash or other artificial light source, you can illuminate your subject while still capturing the ambiance of the night.

For example, imagine photographing a couple under a starry sky. By placing a flash behind the couple, you could create a beautiful silhouette effect, highlighting their outlines against the backdrop of the stars. Or, by using a flash with a softbox or diffuser in front of the couple, you could softly illuminate their faces while keeping the starry sky visible in the background.

Perfecting outdoor lighting and flash may seem challenging at first… But armed with these tips and a willingness to experiment, you’ll soon be creating stunning outdoor shots that showcase the beauty of nature in a more harmonious way. So go ahead, grab your camera, and let your creativity shine!

I hope you enjoyed the shots, this blog is to inspire you to use flash outdoors and blend natural light and flash together seamlessly!

Now let’s get out there, and shoot!

Equipment portrait photography: https://geni.us/photo-equipment

Equipment landscape photography: https://geni.us/nature-photography-set

Travel Books: https://geni.us/travel-book

Join me for more tips & insights!

6 + 14 =