3 Simple Steps to Master Outdoor Flash Portraits

Do you want to take better outdoor portraits than other photographers? What if I told you that you only need three simple steps to master outdoor flash portraits? Even better, you can use these steps to take awesome photographers during the day, under an overcast sky, in the evening or even when there’s harsh light.

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In my previous post, “10 Genius Portrait Photography Tips,” I talked about using off camera flash for better portrait photography. That’s why in this post, I want to dive deeper into how you can do this in three simple steps.

The 3-step process

Before we begin, you may have learned different ways to do outdoor flash portraits. There is no right or wrong method, but below is the simplest way I’ve done and it works (with the least equipment). You’re more than welcome to adjust the method to your needs. However, for this process, you will need a speedlight flash and a remote trigger beside your camera.

Learn how to use your speedlight for the best possible images in these video lessons »

1. Expose for the background 

First, go to auto (or P) mode and take a camera reading on the background of your subject. Remember the exposure triangle: ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Now, go to manual mode and dial the same settings. At this point, don’t worry about exposing your subject; in fact, you don’t need your subject standing in front of you while doing this.

To demonstrate, let’s say the background is exposed at ISO 200, f/4, and shutter speed of 1/125.

If you like a darker background (which I personally like) decreases the ISO (i.e., from ISO 200 to ISO 100), narrow the aperture (i.e., from f/4 to f/5.6) or increase the shutter speed (i.e., from 1/125 to 1/160) — or do all of the above. Do the opposite if you like a brighter background. This is totally up to your style.

Now take a test shot and check ONLY the background for any blown-out highlights to avoid losing details in your picture for post processing. Once you get the ideal exposure for the background, move on to the next step.

2. Fill light onto your subject using flash 

Now, you want to add fill light onto your subject. So how do you even begin? Unless you have a light meter, you just have to guess. Yes, it sounds very counter-intuitive. If you have no idea where to start, use 1/16th of the speedlight’s power.

Have you subject in front of you and take a test shot. Now check ONLY the subject and see if he/she is exposed probably. Before you touch any settings, on you camera, go to step 3.

3. Mixing ambient light with flash

This is perhaps the most technical part in this process. For this step, I’d encourage you to change the flash power only for as long as possible. However, this is not always going to be the case — let me walk you through the quick process below.

First, if your subject is still too dark, power up the flash power (from 1/16 to 1/8); if the subject is too bright, power down it (from 1/16 to 1/32). Remember to check for highlight to make sure nothing is blown out. If your subject is still too dark after you get to half the speedlight’s power, widen the aperture (i.e., from f/4 to f/2.8). If your lens is as low as it goes and the photo is still dark, increase the ISO. (Increasing the ISO last will add noise to your photograph.) 

However, you don’t want to set your speedlight to more than half (1/2) its power due to the flash recycle time. Shooting at full power (1/1) drains the battery quickly, and you’ll need to wait about 5 seconds between each shots. This is tough in portrait situations when you have a person waiting in front of you. 

On the other hand, if your subject is too bright and you have already powered down your flash to 1/128 power (which is the lowest for speedlights), then narrow the aperture (i.e., from f/4 to f/5.6, f/8, etc.). Decrease the ISO if necessary.

Before I show you some example shots below, I want you to have 2 things memorized.

  1. To adjust the flash power of your subject when using flash, change the APERTURE
  2. To adjust the ambient light of the background when using flash, change the SHUTTER SPEED.

I cannot stress how important it is for you to remember the two points above. It is going to save your life in many situations, especially when you are taking pictures in front of client in various lighting situations. 

A few extra tips

to avoid guessing the camera/flash setting, it is the best to use a light meter. Also, bringing in a ND filter can help because it cuts down the light when it’s too sunny outside. Last but not least, using a softbox increase the quality and softness of your light.

Results of the 3-step process in different scenarios

Below are samples of images that I took using the three steps above. Each was taken in a different lighting situation.

Daytime portrait

ISO 100, focal length 80mm, f/2.8, shutter speed 1/60 with a three-stop ND filter. Flash power 1/2 camera left.

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Overcast sky portraits

ISO 400, focal length 130mm, f/4, 1/160 shutter speed. Flash power 1/16 camera right.

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Evening sunset portraits

ISO 100, focal length 70mm, f/4, 1/160 shutter speed. Strobe light powered at 65ws (equivalent to around 1/1 power on speedlight).

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