Playing The Long Game: Outdoor Photography With Telezooms

Tips On Using Flashguns For Portraits

Mark Elliott of Better Photos shares his advice on using flashguns for shooting flattering portraits.

| Studio Lighting and Flash
Words and images by Mark Elliott who is a Cumbria based portrait and commercial photographer. He also runs Better Photos Photography Training -

In Part 1, we explained that correctly placed highlights and shadows and soft light help create flattering portraits. We also revealed that flashguns produce hard light, which when fired directly at your subject from your camera position is often the worst way to use your flash (unless to want to get revenge on your Mother-in-Law).

What techniques can we use to overcome these problems? We’ll discuss ‘on camera’ and ‘off camera’ solutions, below.

Tips On Using Flashguns For Portraits: Alex by Mark Elliott 

1. On Camera Solution

You can avoid hard, direct flash light by bouncing light from your flashgun on a wall or other reflective surface. It works like this. When correctly positioned, light hits the wall, spreads and returns to illuminate your subject. You effectively make the wall into a new, much larger light source and convert a small light source, which emits hard light, into a much larger light source, which produces a much softer, more flattering light. Nice.

Bounce the light from a wall to one side of your subject for the best results. If you have a flashgun that is capable of rotating 180 degrees, you can often successfully bounce flash from walls behind you. You can bounce light from low ceilings but this often gives your subject dark eye sockets.

Thinking of bouncing your flash from that brightly coloured wall? Be aware that light picks up colour from these surfaces that will introduce a colour cast to your images. If you want to avoid your subject looking like a gremlin or a cherry tomato, use white or light grey walls to avoid this. If your images do pick up a colour cast you can try to fix this in camera by setting a custom white balance (if you have time during the photo shoot), or in Photoshop afterwards.

Buying the Right Flashgun

To use the ‘bounce technique’ effectively, you must be able to tilt and rotate your flashgun head. The greater the range of tilt and rotation of your flashgun head, the greater the flexibility this gives you when using this technique. Also, flashguns must be powerful enough to produce enough light to hit the reflective surface and be strong enough for the light to return to illuminate your subject. Powerful flashguns give you the freedom to use reflective surfaces at greater distance from you and your subject.

The best flashguns to use with this technique are, therefore, high powered with tilting and rotating heads.

Pro and Cons of the Bounce Technique:

  • Pros: Speedy, no other equipment required, low cost option, light weight
  • Cons: Have to find reflective surface, limited lighting angles, colour cast problems

Reality Check

What if you have no choice but to use direct, ‘on camera’ flash? Are your photos always going to be a disaster?

There are occasions when you have to use your flashgun mounted on your camera, and you’ve no surface to bounce your light from. You’ve no choice but to aim your flash directly at your subject from the camera position. If done carefully, you can avoid problems when you are using a little fill flash on subjects who are already well lit by day light. Flash gently lifts the shadows and adds a little ‘zing’ to the photograph. It’s a more subtle use of flash than the ‘frying pan lighting’ discussed in Part 1.

A range of light modifiers can be attached to your flashgun whilst it is mounted on your camera. These are used to increase the apparent size of your flash and scatter the light, making it less hard than direct flash light.

2. Off Camera Solution

Things get more interesting when you take your flashgun off your camera. You can do this by positioning your flashgun away from your camera by using clamps, a light stand, the flashgun’s base, flashgun brackets, bungee cord or by using an assistant. This gives you more flexibility to position your flashgun to illuminate your subject from different angles, enabling you to achieve a much greater range of lighting effects.

When your flashgun sits in your cameras hotshoe mount, the two pieces of equipment are able to ‘talk’ directly to each other. Flash is triggered the moment you press your camera’s shutter button. When your flashgun isn’t on your camera, you have to find other ways of triggering your flash.

Broadly, these are by using:
  • Other flash units
  • Cords
  • Optical slaves
  • Radio transmitters
  • Infra red transmitters
(I’ll explain more about these in Part 3)

Light Stands and Cold Shoe Mounts

A light stand is a simple, effective way to move your flashgun ‘off camera’. A cold shoe mount is required to fix your flash unit onto the light stand. Look for cold shoe mounts that tilt and rotate. These give you maximum flexibility to position your flashgun.

Another important factor is the ability to use the cold shoe mount with light modifiers. Can it be used with brollies and soft boxes? Some soft boxes, designed for use with flashguns, come with their own, special cold shoe units, which allow the flashgun to sit correctly inside the softbox.

Achieving Soft Light with Off Camera Flash

Moving your flashgun ‘off camera’ lets you position your flashgun so that light falls on your subject from more interesting angles; it also prevents red eye problems. However, it doesn’t solve the hard light issue. The flashgun remains a small light source, emitting hard light. You have to find ways of softening the light and to do this you use light modifiers.

How do you soften the light? You make the relative size of the light source larger by using light modifiers, such as brollies, soft boxes, and screens. These diffuse and scatter the light, making the light fall on your subject from multiple angles creating softer, more flattering light.

Which Lighting Modifier?

The two most popular options to create soft light are brollies and softboxes. Each has its pros and cons.

  • Pros: Inexpensive, easy to transport, quick to assemble, different fabric options, different sizes, light-weight, shoot through and reflective options.
  • Cons: Scatter light, less light control, sometimes flimsy.
Soft Boxes
  • Pros: Good light quality, tight light control, sturdy
  • Cons: can be tricky/slow to assemble, expensive, need special fittings to mount flash
Other options: Shoot-through panels, reflective panels, wall bounces (a stand gives you even more freedom to use this technique).

In Part 3, we’ll discuss using manual and TTL flash operating modes and look at ways to trigger your flashgun ‘off camera’.

Words and images by Mark Elliott who is a Cumbria based portrait and commercial photographer. He also runs Better Photos Photography Training -

Tips On Using Flashguns For Portraits:

Tips On Using Flashguns For Portraits: Samsung NX11 Competition Tips On Using Flashguns For Portraits: WB700 Competition

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