Creating Natural Outdoor Portraits with Flash

How in the world are you suppose to make a portrait appear to look natural when you use flash outdoors? And maybe more importantly, why take the time and effort to use flash. The thing is that natural light is really terrific in so many instances but there are times when you can greatly improve the look of a portrait by adding a very slight spark of flash that illuminates the eyes, smoothes the skin and when appropriately applied, does not look too "flashy."

In a beautiful city park, in a family’s backyard, at a sports event stadium, they are actually all the same in terms of light quality in most cases. You are faced with controlling the quality of light on the subject as well as in the background.  Sadly, whenever the light is left uncontrolled it is not quite as flattering as it might be.  Here is where your knowledge of the craft of photography kicks in.

Here you see the relationship and distance from the 2 x 3 RFi softbox by Profoto with the new B1 battery powered strobe. In this instance, I selected the ambient light then simply turned on TTL on the flash Air Remote with TTL and the exposure was perfect for the final. 

I almost always use flash when I go outdoors and here is why. I most often need to change the relative brightness between the subject and the background. In the case of working with ambient light only, if my subject is in a darker area for example, and the background is light and airy, I have a problem. If I brighten my exposure for the subject the background gets far too bright, possibly causing an issue with clipping the highlights. Of course, in this case of I needed to darken the background, I would sacrifice light quantity on the subject. This is where flash comes in and why it is critically important in understanding light quality.

I always keep three background levels in mind whenever I shoot outdoors:

  • Background brightness as it truly appears
  • Background brightness darker than it appears
  • Background brightness brighter than it appears

These three levels in the background are all I need to remember in almost any outdoor working situation and once that determination is made, then I decide what to do with the subject.

Making the portrait appear natural is a matter of allowing the ambient brightness in the background and even in the hair or shoulders of my subject, to appear as normal as possible with one exception. The face has to be well lit from both exposure and light direction in order to create a truly complimentary likeness of the subject. I would recommend being careful to light your subject from the same side of the face that the natural light is falling on.  Conflicting shadows create tension in a portrait and leave the viewer not quite at ease. 

I used my new Profoto B1 lighting kit for these portraits and could not be happier with this system. We'll discuss more fully all of the features of this killer setup in a future blog post. But for now just know that I have finally found a lighting system that is truly a game changer and you'll see why.