A guide to using flash outdoors: Part 2

If you think that flash is only for indoors, think again. Mixed with daylight it can bring star quality to an outdoor portrait. Indeed, much of the location portraiture that fills magazines and supplements relies for its impact on a careful blend of flash and available light. And without the flash, the images would be flat and lifeless. This is the second part in a two-part series of posts, you can read Part One here!

The balancing act

Depending on the look you’re after, you can make the flash the main light source (with daylight as the fill), or you can reverse their roles. Either way, you’ll make life a lot simpler if you slip into manual exposure mode on the camera and manual mode on the flash.

Charlotte beside the North Esk with rod - this picture is a straightforward daylight exposure.


Note how the light on the background remains constant, even when I add a large diffused flash in the bottom picture. But now we can see details of Charlotte’s face that were hidden by shadows before. Daylight is the senior partner here.


Springer spaniel, Scotland - this time flash is the senior partner as you can see by how dark unlit areas are.


  • Position your diffuser at the distance you want it from the subject. That’s likely to be close.
  • Set up the flash (or flashes) far enough behind the diffuser so that it will all be illuminated.
  • Set your camera’s shutter speed to the fastest speed it can synchronise with manual flash guns. Typically, this is 1/200 or 1/250 second.
  • Select the aperture you’d like to use.
  • Take a test exposure with the flash on half power and then adjust the flash’s output up on down until the camera’s histogram indicates that the subject is corrected exposed.
  • It’s highly likely at this stage, especially if the ambient light levels are low and you’re shooting with a small aperture, that the background will be too dark. If so, lighten it by lengthening the exposure time – for example, to 1/30 second – until you’re happy with the balance. Don’t try to do this with the aperture or ISO or you’ll change the exposure for the subject: since the background is unaffected by the flash you can change its look without changing that of the subject if you use the shutter speed.

Mark Gibson FRICS on Craigengillan Estate, Ayrshire, Scotland - you can tell by the blurred waterfall that this shot needed a pretty long daylight exposure (actually, 1/20 second) so if I’d stuck with the maximum sync. speed (1/200 second) the background would have been too dark. Once I’d determined the best exposure for Mark, I adjusted the shutter speed until I had the balance of lighting I wanted.


Placing the subject

There is no doubt that this technique creates beautiful, even lighting on the subject. But the pictures can look a little flat, especially if the light is frontal. Even if you don’t want to use a second flash, there’s always the sun. Unlike diffused flash, it is very directional so position the subject so that the sun is behind or to the side of it to add some sparkle.

In this shot of Greg Wise, I had the softbox on the left of the shot and allowed the sun to provide a more directional input than in the other shots of him in Part One.


Landscape portraits benefit from relatively even lighting on the background and sky; if the sky is white and the landscape in deep shade, the shutter speed needed to render detail in the landscape may well blow out the sky.

It’s never been easier to use flash out of doors to elevate your pictures above camera phone snaps than it is now. And it needn't break the bank either.

About the Author

Niall Benvie is a professional outdoor photographer and author of the eBook The Field StudioYou can find out more about him and see more of his work on his website: niallbenvie.photoshelter.com