How to Use Off-Camera Flash for Outdoor Portraits

Digital Photo Mentor

How to Use Off-Camera Flash for Outdoor Portraits

Darlene Hildebrandt

 Darlene Hildebrandt

outdoor portrait photography example

A popular question I get asked a lot is how to use off-camera flash. There are a few things you want to know about when to use it and how. In this article, I’ll go through a few tips that relate to using off-camera flash techniques for outdoor portraits including:

  • When to use flash outdoors.
  • Hard versus soft lighting.
  • Light modifiers: what to use.
  • Why off-camera flash.
  • Flash power: how much is enough.
  • Flash triggers: what to get, how to use them.

When to use flash for outdoor portrait photography

Using flash outdoors is all about analyzing the quality of light versus the quantity of light. There may be plenty of light (quantity) but not the right kind, or coming from the right direction. Some situations where you may want to add some flash are:

  • If your subject is backlit
  • On an overcast day and the light comes from overhead causing dark eye sockets
  • If the subject is in the shade and the background is brightly lit

Of course, there are other times you’ll want to use flash but if you start by looking out for those you’ll have a good base.

The images below show what a difference flash can make.

The light is coming from behind them (notice their hair is lit up) and slightly overhead.

Look at the before image without flash (was actually a mistake and it didn’t fire) and compare it to the after one. Take particular notice of the eyes, especially on the dad.

See how much darker they are in the non-flash one? It’s not a huge difference but the eyes come to life a lot more in the one with flash.BEFORE: no flash – 135mm, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/125thAFTER: with flash – 155mm, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/125th

Below is an example where the background was really bright. The yellow trees were in bright sunlight. The couple really wanted family photos outside the church and they also wanted to see the fall colors on the trees in the garden behind them. It’s a tricky situation, this is how I handled it:

  1. I put the people in the shade of a big tree. If you put them in the sun they will squint and have harsh, unflattering shadows on their faces.
  2. I added flash off-camera (to camera left) with enough power to balance the amount of light on them more closely with that of the background.
  3. The flash is coming through a 32″ white shoot-through umbrella to soften the light.

58mm lens, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/200th – flash in umbrella to camera left


There seems to be a common misunderstanding about what quality of light means. You may have heard the terms “hard light” or “soft light” mentioned in regards to this topic. Quality of light has to do with one thing, and one thing only. Quality of light is affected only by the relative size of the light source and its distance to the subject. Let me say that again!

Quality of light is affected only by the relative size of the light source.

If the light source is small, then the lighting is hard. Hard light is characterized by harsh shadows, high contrast, and an increased amount of texture. All things that are generally not desired by people when having their portrait created. Examples of small light sources include your on-camera built-in flash, your external flash or speedlight (Speedlite if you’re Canon), a bare light bulb, and the sun. In the image below you can tell it is a hard light source (the sun) because of the sharp edges of the shadow and the contrast created.Hard lighting

NOTE: The relative size of a light source is affected by its distance to the subject. So even though the sun is a massive ball of fire, proportionally in the sky it’s tiny due to its great distance from the earth. So if you use a large light source and move it far away from the subject, you’re changing the relative size and therefore also affecting the quality of lighting.

Soft light is created by a large light source and is characterized by low contrast, soft or almost no shadows, and loss of texture. All good things on a person’s face in a portrait! Examples of soft light sources are; the sky on an overcast day, a large reflector like a 42″ disk, large studio softboxes (hence the name) like a 24×36″ or 36×48″, or the wall or ceiling if you bounce your speedlight of them.

Notice the almost complete lack of any shadows in the image below, taken on a foggy day. Not only does it have a different mood than if it were bright sunlight, it has lower contrast and a softness about it. Again, this is a generalization, but most times this is the desired lighting situation for portraits.Soft lighting

So, how do we take our small speedlight and make it into a larger light source? We bounce it off-camera into, or through, something much larger. There are several ways to achieve this, let’s look at some options.


Devices to enhance the light or make it softer are often called “light modifiers”. You can spend money on a bunch of fancy expensive ones or you can go really simple and inexpensive. I’ll give you a few options for both, then you decide what works for you and your budget. I’ll also provide links to a few I have or that I’d recommend for you to check out.

Inexpensive options:

  • A large piece of white cardboard or foamboard. The drawback is transporting it because it can’t be folded up into a neat little package.
  • A large inexpensive foldable reflector. Get the biggest you can of the 5-in-one kind so you get; silver, gold, white, black and translucent options. 42″ or 52″ if you can find it. They will run anywhere from $30-150 or so depending on brand.
  • Simple white or a 3-in-one umbrella. I suggest 42″ or bigger. You will also need a clamp or device to hold the flash and the umbrella together and a small light stand also, or someone to hold it for you.

Fancier more expensive options:

  • Large softboxes (these often require multiple speedlights inside one so read the information carefully before you buy).
  • Large octoboxes – similar to a softbox but with more sides.
  • Beauty dish lights (I have one of the Fireflies below and love it).


Okay, we’ve talked about the quality of light, now let’s consider the direction. Where the light comes from is important because it will create the lighting pattern on the subject’s face. The direction of light will determine where the shadows fall. Many times it is mistakenly assumed that you do not want any shadows on the face in a portrait.

That is usually not true. You actually WANT shadows on the face. But, you want to control the harshness of them (quality of light) and where they fall.

Portrait lighting patterns include the following styles:

  • Loop lighting
  • Rembrandt
  • Split lighting
  • Butterfly
  • Short lighting
  • Broad lighting

Going into detailed descriptions of each of those is beyond the scope of this article. If you want to know more watch a complimentary 19-minute video from my Portrait Lighting on Location course where I go through lighting a model to create all these patterns.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve used off-camera flash for outdoor portraits and a lighting diagram of where I placed the flash for each.90mm lens, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/20th183mm, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/13th

Both images above were done using my little 26″ Firefly beauty box with a flash, off-camera. It is not as large as my umbrella or bouncing into a reflector so to get the light as soft as possible it must be in close.

These images are cropped because in the full frame versions you could actually see the corner of the light in the shot. That’s how close it is to him. Sorry, there were no tree icons in the lighting diagram software, please imagine the tulips are the tree.Firefly just out of the frame on camera left.Without flash – 55mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250thWith flash – 47mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250th

In these two images first, notice the difference between the one without flash and the one with flash. The light is once again coming from behind them. It is putting some light on their faces but not at an angle that is flattering, their eyes are too dark. So I added the flash off to camera left (to match the direction the daylight is coming so it blends more naturally and doesn’t look “flashed”) using a 3-way umbrella bounced into the white/black combination.

The extra figure you see in the diagram below by the flash is my lovely assistant, also known as “husband”. I joke around in my classes that I have a Voice Activated Light Stand. Now you know I really do! It is really helpful to have an assistant to hold the light, or just be there to make sure any light stands don’t tip over.

Attach an umbrella and it becomes a bit of a sail. The slightest breeze causes it to take flight. Trust me, I know. You don’t want to go there. If you can’t get an assistant, carry a small sandbag with you to weight down the light stand.


One more factor to consider is how much flash to add to the scene. So we’re back to quantity again. How much flash you want to add is relative to the effect you want it to have on the final image.

  • If you want the image to appear natural, as if no flash was used at all, you want the power to be less than the available or naturally occurring light.
  • If you want the flash to overpower the natural light, such as the case of a bright background, then you will need more power coming from the flash. You will also need a faster shutter speed to decrease the exposure on the background (see note below).

*NOTE: Over-powering bright sunlight requires a lot of flash power, sometimes more than one speedlight. You will also likely require a flash and remote flash triggers that can handle high-speed flash sync. That allows you to shoot at a faster shutter speed than your camera’s “normal” sync speed. Most cameras sync at 1/200th or 1/250th of a second, check your camera manual if you aren’t sure. If you shoot faster than that and you aren’t set up for high-speed sync you’ll get the flash being partly cut off and it will look like 1/2 your image was lit, or there’s an odd shadow all the way across the whole image.This is the light meter I use.

The easiest way to measure the flash intensity is with a handheld light meter (see photo right). It is a device that just measures the amount of light and tells you what settings to use for your exposure. Your camera also does this but it can’t measure flash all by itself. Most studio photographers have such a device.

If you do not have a light meter, but your flash can talk to the camera when it is off-camera (again check your manual for remote firing settings) you can use the TTL (Through the Lens) metering options for your flash. If you want the flash equal to the natural light, leave it set to “0” or slightly less like “-0.6”. If you want the flash to be brighter then set it to the + side, keeping in mind it may overexpose the whole image that way and you may need to cut down the overall exposure (using Exposure Compensation).

When I’m doing portraits like this I’m almost always in Manual shooting mode so I have full control over my settings and the exposure isn’t changing from one shot to the next. I use my flashes on full manual settings and I use my light meter.

If the flash is too bright I can either turn down the power or move it back a little (remember that moving it back also changes its relative size). If the flash is too dim, I move it closer or increase the power. You can read more about balancing flash and natural light here, and creating dramatic off-camera flash portraits here. So if you don’t have a meter or a way to do TTL with your flash, just set it on manual, do a test shot and set the power according to the results.

In the image below, I had enough power on the flash to balance nicely with the natural light and still keep my shutter speed to the standard 1/250th that my Canon syncs at. Notice how it doesn’t really look “flashed” and the light coming from the left is intentional because it creates what’s called “wrap around lighting”. The sun is also coming from the left, so it feels more natural to keep the flash on the same side. If I put the flash to camera right it will make the shadows go the opposite way and it won’t feel right in our brains. We may not know what’s wrong, it will just feel off.Flash off to camera left again – 47mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250th120mm, ISO400, f/3.5, 1/10th – flash camera left, camera on a tripod.

In the image above, notice the much slower shutter speed. That is because the background was quite dark and I wanted to keep detail back there. If I had used a faster shutter speed with the same amount of flash the background would become a black hole of nothing.

With my camera on a tripod, I can safely shoot at 1/10th of a second and still have a sharp image. Even if he moves slightly, the flash will freeze him. Again I’ll suggest reading Balancing Flash with Natural Light for more information.


Now for the tricky part! Getting your flash(es) to fire off-camera can be a bit complicated. If your newer camera that has a built-in pop-up flash and newer model flash (same brand as your camera) you may be able to get the two to “talk” to each other without any extra devices (check your manual or the manufacturer’s site for information on your models and whether this is possible). I am not so lucky!

I have the fabulous Canon 5D MkIII which is great, but it does not have a built-in flash, so I need another way to fire my flashes off-camera. There are basically two ways to go if you need to buy remote flash triggers (not to be confused with remote camera triggers that fire the camera). I tend to go with #2 below!

  1. Go the brand route and either get the brand matching your camera or PocketWizard remotes (which offer TTL). You Nikon folks are lucky your flashes are simpler to fire and you likely won’t need anything to fire your flash off-camera. These are NOT cheap, expect to spend about $200 per device, so if you need a sender and two receivers you’ll be spending over $600.
  2. Go the after-market (third-party manufacturers) route and spend a LOT less money. You can get a set of three for less than $150! The brand I have is Yongnou, you can get regular or TTL triggers for a little extra. Who’s with me on this one?!


Okay so if you’ve ever wanted to try out off-camera flash, now’s the time! Get what you need for equipment and keep it as simple as possible. Get a willing subject and go try it out! What’s the worst that can happen? The photos don’t come out the way you want?

Here’s the reality. Most photographers screw up at least once! Yup, it’s true. And when do you learn the most? Yes also true, we learn a lot from our mistakes. So don’t be afraid to go and make mistakes and totally screw it up. Just go out with the attitude of learning and having fun and it will all be good. Then next time it will be a little better.

As always if you have questions please ask, and do share your images – both success and ones that didn’t quite work out. I’m happy to help troubleshoot, and celebrate! I’m in your corner!

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