Using Flash Outdoors

One thing that beginning photographers sometimes find tricky is finding the right balance between ambient (available) light and flash.  Doing this well can mean the difference between natural-looking photos and that deer-in-the-headlights, flashed look that is almost never attractive.  One of the keys is to get your flash off the camera. Here’s how I do it:

What you will need:

– a camera with a hotshoe (a clip on top for external flash)

Any SLR camera will have a hot shoe on top.


– an external flash (these don’t have to be large expensive ones) – they can attach to your camera if you have to work very quickly, but you will like your results better if you can get it of the camera and fire it remotely. There are lots of relatively cheap remotes out there to do this. Below is an example of a good Canon flash.

580 exII Flash
580 exII Flash

This is the rather pricy (and getting old) Canon 580exII, but you can buy off brand flashes for considerably cheaper.

So, once you are ready, set you camera to manual and find the correct exposure for the sky (assuming it is a bright sunny day.)  If you are new to shooting in manual mode, a safe place to start would be using the tried and true sunny 16 rule:

SUNNY 16 RULE: on a sunny day set your aperture to  f16 with a shutter speed of 1/ISO.  So if you want to shoot at 1/200 of a sec, your ISO should be set to 200.

So your settings in manual mode might be:

Aperture: F16   Shutter Speed: 1/200   ISO: 200

NOTE: Do not set your shutter speed any higher if you want to use flash or it won’t work due to the flash synch speed (don’t worry about it if you don’t know what synch speed means, just keep the shutter speed below 1/200 sec)

Put your model with the sun behind him or her and take your first shot without the flash.  It should look something like this:

Katie jumps-3199

Note that the exposure on the sky is good, but the model needs more light.

Now turn on your flash and use it to fill in the light on your subject.  Here I used a  Canon 580ex on a stand and shot it remotely.

ktjump 001

The sky and the subject are both lit evenly and the image is fairly well balanced.

That’s it!  If your flash is in ETTL mode it should pretty much nail the exposure, but most flashes give you the ability to turn them up or down to your taste.  I think here I shot with the flash in manual mode at about 1/4 power.

Note that in daylight all of this is easier to accomplish in the shade where your model won’t be blinking in the bright sunlight and you don’t have to overpower the sun quite so much.

One last thing – remember that most flashes don’t have very much throw, so they aren’t going to light up much beyond your subject.

The pic below is shot wide to show the limitations of the flash:

Katie jumps-

Here you can see that even with a fairly large flash, the barn behind my subject is still dark..
So that’s basically how I do it.  Remember that this has a lot of applications besides just sunshine.  Consider this technique any time you want to preserve the light around you but still add a bit of light to your subject.


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