This article is meant for photographers who want to learn how to use an external flash in outdoor shooting situation. Shooting outdoors in natural light can be a challenge depending upon your understanding of the nature of light. I know most of you are aware how amazing golden hour light can be. This warm soothing light is perfect for a number of photography genres. You can shoot wedding, engagements, casual portraits, architecture photos and much much more during this magical time of the day. Fast forward another 30 minutes or so and the potential of the blue hour isn’t that inconspicuous either.

Unfortunately, despite the magical attributes of these beautiful times of the day, the fundamental aspect of natural light makes them completely unpredictable. Therein lies the challenge that most outdoor photographers face. As an aspiring photographer you will soon face it and have learn how to work your way around the challenge known as – inclement light. But what is inclement light?

inclement light

Understanding the nature of light is fundamental to all photography

Inclement light means light that changes. During the times of the day I mentioned above it changes quite rapidly. The quality of light, by nature, isn’t the same throughout the day. It changes throughout the course of the day. Mid-day light is harsh producing striking shadows. Late afternoon light, as we discussed above, is more pleasing and amiable for shooting.

When shooting outdoors you need to keep an eye out for changing color temperature. Color temperature is something that changes with the progress of the day as well. Then again cloud cover plays an important part in the whole scheme of things.

Tip # 1 & 2 – External Flash in Outdoor Shooting- Golden Hour (Two Scenarios)

Let’s take the best case scenario to start off – working at the golden hour. Let’s assume that you are shooting engagement photos. You want to capture your couple against the setting sun. There are a couple of problems. A – In trying to expose for the faces you are blowing out the sky. B – If you plan an extended shoot, the light will change dramatically over time making it difficult for you to produce a series of similarly exposed images.That is unless you are careful enough to change the color temperature as well as the exposure.

In both the above situations the solution would be in using an external flash. Rather than speedlights I would recommend using strobes here, especially those which are battery powered. These units are more powerful, have faster recycle time and gives you better control over your photography.

using an external flash when shooting in golden light

Working during the golden hour

In the first of the two scenarios (as a matter of fact in both the scenarios) above you will need to gel the strobes. This is because the ambient light at this time of the day is extremely warm and the color cast will be difficult to correct later in post-process. CTO gels should be your preferred choice.

In the first scenario have the strobe placed at 180 ° to the position of the sun. This basically creates a cross-lighting setup. The subjects will be lit from behind by the sun and from the other side, which will be slightly darker as the main light (the sun) is behind, will be lit by the fill-light, i.e., your strobe. Depending on the position of the couple’s faces you will have a nice transition area between the sun-lit and the strobe-lit sections.

Some photographers prefer a second strobe that is fired aimed at this transition area. I personally prefer a contrasting look. You are free to choose whichever setup you wish to go with. With the light(s) thus setup, meter for the background. Use just enough light to balance the exposure on the subject’s faces. An external light meter is essential as it will help you to balance the exposure. Start by selecting your aperture value. Then meter for the background to establish the shutter speed you need. Next, dial in the power settings on the flash so that it is just about half a stop to one stop higher than the exposure for the background. This ensures that the faces are properly lit. This also ensures some contrast in the image. Take it away from there.

In the second scenario with the light dropping fast an extended golden hour shoot may not be possible. But you can mimic the golden hour light to extend the window of opportunity. Thanks to Pye from Lin & Jirsa Photography from whom I came to know about this technique of using an external flash in outdoor shooting. You need a powerful strobe for this. Place it as far back from your couple as you need, to make the effect look realistic. Gel the strobe with CTO gels to get a warm color tone and to make it appear as the Sun during golden hour. Pose your couple and make your images. This technique will however work as long as there is a reasonable amount of light in the sky to make it look realistically golden hour.

Tip # 3 – Working during the blue hour

The blue hour is an extended shooting opportunity for the discerning photographer, a short creative window at the end of the day, a value for money proposition for the patient photographer. I personally like shooting when there is still a touch of warm light at the corner of the western hemisphere. That kind of contradicts with the overall blue sky. The blue hour is a good example for using an external flash in outdoor shooting scenario. For the blue hour I prefer mostly front lit setups as the ambient light is too less to be of any significant use except as a backdrop. A single light fired from high above through a diffuser and or grid depending on the look works just fine. Just to make it interesting I would gel the flash to produce a warm light and contradict with the blue background.

Tip # 4 – After dark portraits with flash

After dark portraits invariably needs whatever ambient light is available just for the sake of producing an interesting background in the composition. Street lights, light trails from passing vehicles, shop windows anything and everything works. You don’t want to have an infinitely black background for your portraits. This of course does not apply to certain genres such as star trails or Milky Way photography. They need completely different approach.

How to light your subject for night-time portraits

Making portraits during the night using an external flash

You need to remember a couple of things when shooting at night with flash. Your shutter speed will determine how much of the ambient light you are letting in for your exposure. Slower the shutter speed, brighter will be the background and more light trail you will capture. Must use a tripod. The hand-held approach at night time with a slow shutter speed rarely works. Use the flash in rear-curtain sync mode to ensure there are no blur.

Tip # 5 – Working under shade

Another opportunity to use an external flash in outdoor shooting is when you are shooting under the shade. A shade is a good place to shoot when the light is hard. Shade provides a natural diffuser. But what if it is overcast and the light is diffused? How do you use flash in a situation like this? Well the flash can be used in most outdoor situations. In this case you can use it to warm things up a bit. You can also use a CTO gel.

using external flash when photographing under the shade

Photographing under the shade with

Bonus Tip – The fill-flash mode

I know I promised five methods. Consider this a bonus tip on using external flash in outdoor shooting. This mode is a favorite with photographers when they are caught in a hard lighting situation with the sun almost directly overhead with no shade around. Turning the subject away from the sun doesn’t do too much of a difference either in this situation. Using the fill-flash mode is a good solution in such a situation apart from praying for some cumulonimbus clouds. Fill-flash works by filing in all the shadows that form around the eyes, under the nose and the chin and in the process create a softer, more flattering portrait.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee