A common misconception among beginners in lighting is that they MUST use flash or introduce lights when shooting in a dimly lit room, even when the room has a window. They usually think that if there isn’t enough light, they need to employ multiple lights and flood the space with light.

Another similar misconception is that they should use flash ONLY WHEN there isn’t enough light. Why then do some photographers use their off-camera speedlights when shooting portraits in bright sunlight? After all, why add light when you already have enough?

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The truth is, we now have at our disposal the ability to create almost any type of mood in our pictures, simply by being able to control how light falls on our portrait subjects. Using off-camera flash techniques (it doesn’t matter whether it’s with speedlights or monolights/studio lights) we can create drama and depth by sculpting our portrait subjects the way we envision it. For starters, we can create hard light or soft light, use short lighting or broad lighting with a clear purpose, and mix color temperatures for added effect.

What’s important is the final result of the portrait. Think about the type of portrait you wish to create, and use your available tools wisely to achieve that look.

Coming back to the example of a dimly lit room with a window, I would first evaluate if the window provides the right quality of light for our portrait, before using any flash. Generally, a window with soft diffused light is preferred for more flattering portraits. This would be typically a north-facing window or south-facing window because there is no direct sunlight. If this is not available, a sheer curtain is good for diffusing harsh light. Position your subject slightly lower than the window because you want the light to come from slightly above, to allow shadows to fall under the subject’s nose.

When all else fails to create soft diffused light, a speedlight can come to the rescue. Shooting a speedlight through a sheer curtain, or bouncing the light into a wall and onwards through the window, will replicate soft natural light. This is a very useful off-camera flash technique that can make all the difference in your portrait.

In the 2nd example of using flash in brightly lit scenes, I would again evaluate the ambient light and see if what’s already there is good enough for the results I have in mind. Sometimes the ambient light may be coming from the top and cast nasty shadows on our subject’s face. Other times, it may simply just be too diffused (yes too much of a good thing is sometimes bad, depending on the final results you want) resulting in flat light, which means that the portrait may lack drama and definition.

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In both these situations, I would introduce flash to sculpt the portrait. For top-heavy ambient light, one solution is to drastically underexpose the ambient (rendering the nasty shadows insignificant) and light the portrait subject with your speedlights. Depending on your required look, this may involve using multiple speedlights (both for increased power and also to light background areas).

To improve the flat lighting, I may underexpose the ambient just slightly, and introduce speedlights to create side lighting. Side lighting usually creates depth and definition in your subjects. It also brings out textures well. This off camera flash technique will make a lot of difference in your pictures.

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We are just looking at the tip of the iceberg here with these techniques, there is so much room for creativity in portrait lighting. Try these techniques out, and when you’re ready for more, check out my e-book guides in the right column.

Andy Lim
Author of SimpleSLR Photography Guides