Like most photographers, I’m obsessed with the light around me — be it the sun, the moon or the stars. But, I want to talk about why I’m also in love with the humble little flash in my camera bag. Off-camera flash (OCF) has become a key component of my creative process. It’s reassuring to know that I can always create light when I need it, plus OCF allows me to create outdoor portraits that match my creative vision, regardless of the natural light available.

I’ve talked to many photographers who are intimidated by OCF, but there’s really no reason to be overwhelmed or hesitant to learn. Using off-camera flash outdoors really can be integrated easily into your workflow with a minimum amount of fuss and gear. This small tool can make the impossible possible and in my opinion is the most powerful asset you can have in your bag.

Using OCF on-location will open up a whole new world of lighting possibilities and the best part is, it is incredibly fun! Here’s how to get started:

1. Learn the two basic components of OCF.

The two basic components you need for off-camera flash are a speedlite and a trigger. That’s it. I recommend keeping it simple while you’re learning and just practice with these two components until you’re comfortable creating the look you want. Leave the sandbags and modifiers at home until you feel confident with OCF.

When you go out to take photos, keep your fully charged speedlite and triggers in your camera bag, right alongside your favorite lens. That way you are always prepared and you can create the light you want.

Example of a simple two-component OCF setup:

For the image below, I had a friend hold the bare flash pointed down at the model’s face. The final image would have been impossible to create without my trusty speedlite. I could have shot this with no flash and used a wider aperture but then I would have lost the sun’s starburst effect I wanted to include. I also would have lost the detail of the roots of the trees as the flash was providing the light on the roots.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
By using off-camera flash, I was able to light the model's face and include the sunburst.
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here is the image brightened up in post-processing where no flash was used on the subject.

NEXT, TRY MODIFIERS:

Once you are comfortable with your flash and triggers I recommend you grab an inexpensive umbrella-style modifier and a light stand. The umbrella will give you the ability to create softer light that will easily blend with most ambient light. The light stand will allow you to take OCF photos without an assistant/friend holding the flash.

I always keep a collapsible umbrella in my camera bag along with my triggers and flash. Remember, keep things simple and don’t overwhelm yourself with a bunch of expensive and unnecessary gear. Trying to cart tons of gear on location could make you want to give up before you even get started.

2. Know when to use flash on location.

It isn’t necessary to use flash for every image, but it is a very helpful tool when the vision in your mind cannot be created with natural light alone. If you just haphazardly place your flash with no real intention, the images will reflect that. You should always have a vision in mind when creating light for your photos.

There are a few common situations that lead me to pull out my speedlite. The most obvious is when there is just not enough light to take a well-exposed image of my subject. This can happen at any time of the day depending on the available light.

Here’s an example of using OCF to achieve a specific vision:

For the photo below, I was in dense woods at the end of a small bog. I wanted to take the image from this angle with the logs and water visible behind my subject and also maintain that subtle rim light around her. This angle had her backlit and facing a thickly wooded area that was bouncing no light back toward her. I knew that by increasing my overall exposure I would still not be happy with the quality of light on her face and I would lose the detail in my background that I wanted to maintain. I positioned my flash with a beauty-dish style modifier at about a 45-degree angle from my subject at camera right. I loved the resulting image and it matched what I had envisioned from the start.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Using off-camera flash allows for the subject and the background to be exposed correctly.
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here the background is exposed properly, causing the subject to be underexposed.

An example of using OCF to properly expose the sky and subject:

Another common situation for pulling out my flash is when I want my sky to be exposed properly as well as my subject. For this example, I wanted to showcase the amazing clouds above my daughter, so I chose my camera’s settings to expose for the clouds. This left my subject entirely too dark. I then added in flash to the desired amount to create Rembrandt style light.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
With flash
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Without flash

3. Find the right balance of flash and natural light.

Mixing OCF with natural light is an extremely useful skill to learn, as most of your outside work will include some amount of ambient light. By learning to mix the two, you’ll have the option to maintain a natural look or add drama to the scene by the settings you choose with your camera and flash.

I recommend that you first set your exposure for the ambient light before even turning on your flash. Once you have the desired background exposure, add in your flash at a low power setting for just a touch of light to augment the scene. If your subject looks too light or dark, then adjust your flash power accordingly.

When dealing with flash, a good rule of thumb is that your shutter speed controls your ambient light/background while your aperture affects your subject/area lit by flash.

An example of using flash to create a natural look:

Often when choosing to supplement the natural light with flash, I just want to add a small amount of light to create catchlights or add dimension to the scene. In this example, I wanted to maintain the background and golden light while also adding a tiny amount of sparkle to my daughter’s face. I used the same camera settings for both images but added a very small amount of flash power for the image on the left.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Subtle flash added
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
No flash

An example of using OCF to mimic the existing light:

You can use flash to subtly mimic the existing natural light. I placed the flash to fire from the same direction as the overcast sun to add a little dimension to the scene. The day was breezy, so my trusty assistant was playing a very important role in keeping my light stand grounded. A big drawback of umbrellas is that they love to take flight in a strong (or slight) breeze.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Image taken with off-camera flash.
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the image above.

An example of using OCF to crate drama:

You can also choose to use flash settings that will provide a more dramatic effect. These images were taken just minutes after the pictures shown above but I exposed to retain the details in my sky with a smaller aperture. I added in my flash at a stronger power to increase the drama.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Image taken with off-camera flash.
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here's the image without flash.
How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here is my simple off-camera flash setup.

4. Don’t be afraid to use flash in full sun.

Another way to get dramatic light is to shoot in full sun. Despite my reluctance to shoot in this situation, life happens in harsh sunlight just as often as it happens during the golden hour. Embrace the light that you have and take advantage of what full sun offers; it is a great opportunity to use smaller apertures to get starbursts from your light sources and to use darker shadows for a dramatic image.

Your speedlite may have a difficult time competing with the bright sun. Try using it bare and at full power in order to get all the light that you can from it.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Taken with off-camera flash on full power.

3 Important tips for using off-camera flash

  1. Have a plan in place for the type of light you envision before you even turn on your flash.
  2. Practice frequently so that you can be confident in your gear and knowledgeable about the light you will be able to produce in different situations.
  3. Don’t rush yourself. Master each technique before moving onto more complicated setups and gear.
Here's a look behind the scenes.
Here I'm using my off-camera flash on full power.

5. Use flash to show motion.

One of the perks of using OCF is that you can create images that would otherwise be impossible. One example of this is using flash to freeze and show motion. Without flash, you might not be able to push your camera settings enough to freeze motion, light your subject, and create the artistic look you want. Luckily, we can create the light we need with OCF.

An example of using OCF to freeze motion:

For this image, I had a bare flash right behind my daughter’s head to backlight the falling snow. Note: To take this picture, you may need a second light source to ensure your subject’s face is well lit. The second light could be another flash, the sun, or a whatever other light sources you may have handy.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits

An example of merging two OCF images to create a specific look:

In this image, I wanted to show the motion of the rushing waves while keeping my daughter free of motion blur. For this situation, I decided to capture two separate exposures and merge them together in post-processing to create the image I envisioned.

How to use off-camera flash for outdoor portraits
Here, I'm using off-camera flash to show the motion of the waves.

Photography is all about light and there are few things more reassuring than knowing you have great light available no matter what situation you find yourself in. I hope this encourages you to take your flash with you the next time you are traveling near or far. There’s no reason to be fearful of flash, and it can be an incredibly helpful tool for achieving your artistic vision!

All photos by Leah McLean

How to use off-camera flash outdoors