Education Photo Proventure Technique

Outdoor Flash Photography (Naturally)

April 7, 2016
Outdoor Flash Photography Naturally | Photo Proventure Photography Blog | Matt Korinek - Photographer
Learn how to shoot with flash outdoors (naturally). This three part series covers the key aspects of how to mix natural and artificial light. Check it out on the Photo Proventure blog >

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):


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:

  1. Ambient Light – the light from the sun (or other sources) that is lighting the scene
  2. 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
Outdoor Flash Photography | Natural Artificial Light | Photo Proventure-800px

In this shot, natural light is streaming in from camera left to where Paul is sitting under the bridge. The artificial light is coming from camera right adding some fill/wide rim light to his face.

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Artificial Key, Ambient Rim
Outdoor Flash Photography | Natural and Ambient Mix | Photo Proventure | Matt Korinek - Photographer

In this shot, the sun is acting as a hard rim light; coming from above and a bit behind Chontelle on camera left. The artificial light is the soft light that is illuminating the front side of her body, also coming from camera left.

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:

  1. Augmenting the light you already see
  2. Adding new light from a similar direction
  3. Filling shadows to get detail
  4. Imagining light that would naturally occur
  5. Choosing a new direction

What option you choose will be dictated by the depth of the background how much of the background

Augmenting Light

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Mimicing Light Direction | Photo Proventure

In this shot of Carly, I used a small octa to create more dramatic and directional light compared to the light that was already coming in from the same direction.

This is the easiest direction to get natural results.

Similar Direction

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Similar Direction Rim Light | Photo Proventure

Soft natural light was pouring in from camera left. I set up a light behind Paul on camera left to create a rim light that would help separate him from the background.

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | With Without Flash Comparison | Photo Proventure

On the left, you can see that the sun is above, behind and to camera left of Chontelle. On the right, you can see how adding a light on the left, coming on a downwards angle but this time in front of Chontelle, you get more detail in her form.

Filling Shadows

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Filling Shadows | Photo Proventure

In this shot of Sammie, the light was coming in from behind her (see the shadow from her shoulder on the wall. This mean her face would be in shadow so I used a small octa to fill the shadows coming from camera left.

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Filling Shadows | Photo Proventure

Thinking logically about where light would naturally come from is key to realistic outdoor flash photography.

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).

Imagining Light

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Imagining Light Behind the Scenes | Photo Proventure

In this otherwise flat light environment, I was able to create a natural looking using two lights.

I personally love soft light, but sometimes when it’s cloudy, it can get “too soft” and lose all direction.

Outdoor FlashPhotography | Imagining Light | Photo Proventure

Since light was coming from every direction on this cloudy day, I had to imagine a directional light that would get the look I wanted.

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.

Outdoor Flash Photography | Light New Direction | Photo Proventure

Without context, you may not be able to tell what direction the natural light is entering the frame (left), whereas when you pull back (right) it is obvious that the natural light is coming from behind and I am artificially lighting Carly’s face.

In my experience, this technique is most successful when you have these conditions:

  1. Tight Crop – so you’re not showing your viewer enough context for them to easily determine the direction of natural light (as above)
  2. 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).

Outdoor Flash Photography | Comparing Directions | Photo Proventure

In this comparison you can see the difference between a image where the flash is opposite of the natural light (left) and when it is place on the same side as the natural light (right). Which do you think looks more natural?

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.


(affiliate link)


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  • Reply Felipe Buccianti April 8, 2016 at 4:43 am

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Looking forward to part two!

    • Reply Matt Korinek April 8, 2016 at 8:02 am

      You’re welcome Felipe. Did you find anything specifically helpful?

      • Reply Felipe April 26, 2016 at 12:15 pm

        I keep finding myself too eager to add artificial light before studying the natural light in a scene. Just read part 2 and this is all very helpful. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

  • Reply Robyn G April 18, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Matt, so happy to have found your site and thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Reply Matt Korinek April 18, 2016 at 10:17 am

      Hey Robyn, thanks for the kind words. I’m happy to share! Let me know if there are any area of photography you’re specifically interested in. Have a great week!

      • Reply Robyn G April 18, 2016 at 10:25 am

        Very generous. Thanks Matt and have a great week!

  • Reply Rick Rush May 23, 2016 at 2:49 am

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It is easily understood.Well done.

    • Reply Matt Korinek May 23, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      Hey Rick, thanks so much for stopping by. It’s great to hear that my explanation was understandable – that’s always the hope! Would love to see any images where you give your new knowledge a try. 🙂

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