Photo Proventure reader Evan Pantiel (who has some excellent work) sent me an email a few weeks ago asking about how I go about mixing natural and artificial light in outdoor flash photography.
I gave him a few quick points and promised to write more on the blog. I hope you find my response to his question helpful!
Outdoor Flash Photography
At the heart of making outdoor flash photography look natural is being curious about the light you see in the real world. Whenever I see beautiful light, I think about how I could recreate it using lighting. If I have time, I’ll even explore the light by getting into it to see its direction and see what type of shadow(s) it is creating.
You also have to look at the gear you can and determine whether or not you can achieve your vision with what you’ve got.
Here’s the gear I have and have used to get that natural look in outdoor flash photography (affiliate links below help support this site):
- Strobes | Profoto B1, Profoto B2, Profoto Pro8A
- Speedlights | Nikon SB910, Nikon SB700, Canon 600EX-RT
- Triggers | Profoto TTL-N, Profoto TTL-C, PocketWizard PlusX
- Modifiers | Profoto OCF Light Shapers, Profoto Umbrella, Profoto Zoom Reflector, Elinchrom Octa, Photek Softlighter
Getting the Natural Look
If you’re trying to add flash to your image in a natural way outdoors, you’re going to have to be subtle. You’re may not even see what the light is adding to the frame until you compare it with an un-lit image. Stick with it and play around until everything looks just right.
Here’s the things I think about when I mix natural and artificial light:
- What’s My Key?
- Direction of Light
- Light Intensity
- Hard or Soft
- Colour Temperature
- Modifier Shape
In this first part of a 3 part series, I’ll discuss the first two concepts in naturally lit outdoor flash photography. If you have any questions that come up, reach out in the comments below and I’ll respond directly or address it in a future blog post.
What’s My Key?
The first step to blending light is deciding which light will be the star and which will be the supporting actor.
In outdoor flash photography, you always have at least 2 sources of light:
- Ambient Light – the light from the sun (or other sources) that is lighting the scene
- Artificial Light – the light from your flash
There are no rules as to which of those two should be your key, fill or rim light.
Natural Key, Artificial Fill
Artificial Key, Ambient Rim
By figuring out what role each light will play, you can start looking at what direction your natural light is coming from in order to blend them naturally.
Direction of Light
At the same time I’m deciding what my key light will be, I’m looking at the direction that any natural light is coming from.
Remember to look beyond the obvious. Not only is light coming from the sky/sun, it is often being shaped barriers in the environment and reflected by light or shiny surfaces. Taking cues from the environment to build your lighting scheme is important in natural looking outdoor flash photography.
Basically you have 5 main choices that I will discuss briefly:
- Augmenting the light you already see
- Adding new light from a similar direction
- Filling shadows to get detail
- Imagining light that would naturally occur
- Choosing a new direction
What option you choose will be dictated by the depth of the background how much of the background
In general, it is best practice to follow the direction of light as it is naturally occurring. If it is to the left of your subject, enhance it by adding a flash to the same side. If you see a slight glint of rim light, use flash to make it more evident.
In the photo of Paul at the top of this post, I saw that there was a faint rim light coming from camera right. I set up a 1×3 softbox coming from the same angle so that I could make it brighter.
This is the easiest direction to get natural results.
An extension of the technique above, choosing a similar direction for your light will give you a good chance of realizing realistic results.
So if your natural light is somewhere on camera right, then choose a different but complimentary angle on camera right to add your flash.
Here’s a before/after example where you can see that the light from the flash is coming from a similar (not the same) direction.
The ability to fill shadows can be done in bright sun, deep shade and everything in between. The trick is to mask the direction of the fill so you can’t even tell is is there.
Want to see this technique in action? In this shot of Chontelle, I was able to fill the shadows using a small octa on camera left. You expect the light to be coming from the left and for her shadowed side to be towards the pier.
Although I don’t have an example of this to share, a really great way to create a shadowless fill is to keep your flash on-axis (same angle as the camera is to the subject).
On cloudy days or in shadowed areas, you can get creative. That’s because in these situations light is coming from almost everywhere. The sky is a giant softbox, so often there is no direction to follow.
I personally love soft light, but sometimes when it’s cloudy, it can get “too soft” and lose all direction.
Choosing a New Direction
This is when you choose a lighting direction that completely conflicts with what you see in the environment. You’ll probably find that this technique will be the hardest in keeping things looking natural.
In my experience, this technique is most successful when you have these conditions:
- Tight Crop – so you’re not showing your viewer enough context for them to easily determine the direction of natural light (as above)
- Shallow Scene – where your light is able to light the background as well
Wrapping up for now
Getting the direction right is just the first step to making things looks natural. To my eye, placing your light on the same side of the subject will always give you more natural results than putting it on the opposite side (which can look more three-dimensional).
Thing is, getting the direction right is only the first step in getting natural results in outdoor flash photography. In my next post, I’ll talk about how light intensity and how the hardness/softness of your light can help achieve that realistic look.
So get present to the natural light that occurs around you and play around with the direction of your flash to get natural results outdoors.
In the meantime, let me know what you thought of this post and if you have any questions about this post or outdoor flash photography in general, reach out with a comment below.