Fill flash for outdoor portraits

I absolutely love to shoot portraits outdoors, being a nature lover myself I have always enjoyed shooting portraits in scenic locations. But one of the hardest things to control with an outdoor shoot is the light. There are many creative ways to just use the natural light to get great portraits, but many times you need to modify the light to get that perfect shot. Even when the sun is low and the light is soft the sun only comes in from one direction and that direction might not line up with the angle you want to shoot at.

This image here was taken near sunset, the sun was coming in from the camera right at about a 45 degree angle from them. I could have turned the couple to be facing the sun more to give them a nice light that was more even but really liked this big rock and the background behind them. Without any flash there is too much shadow on their faces. You can try to edit this in Photoshop to lighten then up a bit but there really is no better way to photograph than to get the shot right when you capture it. Another way to shoot this without flash would be to up your exposure so you are exposing for more of the shadow light on them and letting the highlights get really bright. The only negative to doing that is you are going to loose the rich colors in the background that you have here and the dramatic sky. I wanted to have the exposure a little bit underexposed to capture the rich background and chose to simply add one light to fill the shadows on the couple in.

These shots are all straight out of the camera so you can see the images without any Photoshop work done:

natural light portraits no fill flash

With the sun going down quick I used ETTL with a Canon 580 flash that was triggered by a PocketWizard TT1 and FlexTT5 units. I set the light without any umbrella or modifier about 30degrees to the left of the camera. The light was a good 20 feet from the couple which helps to keep it soft and as a fill instead of overpowering the scene. You can also dial down the exposure on your flash and I often power my flash down a full stop so it is just filling the shadows but not overpowering. With the camera and flash set to ETTL I didn’t have to do anything else to meter the shot. Photographing in aperture priority I had the following settings on my camera.

- Canon 5d 28-70mm lens shooting at 28mm
- 1/640th of a second @2.8
- -.3 exposure bias
- 125 ISO

Adding this extra fill flash makes a huge different in the exposure on the couple. Here is the image with the flash firing:

The photo still didn’t have enough impact for me and I wanted the background to be darker while still keeping the couple in the same light. For the final shot I simply changed my exposure compensation to -1.3 which darkened the background by one additional stop. Then a little color in photoshop to really make that background pop and done.

fill flash outdoors

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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