Lighting Techniques with Speedlights

A common misconception among beginners in portrait lighting is that they should use flash ONLY WHEN there isn’t enough light.

Why then do some professional photographers use their flash when shooting portraits in bright sunlight? After all, why add light when you already have enough?

Speedlight For Outdoor Portraits

In a scene where you already have plenty of light, I would 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.

In this situation, I would introduce flash to shift the balance of light. I want to diminish the effect of the top-down light, and add a speedlight to illuminate the subject from the side. One solution is to drastically underexpose the ambient light, rendering the nasty shadows insignificant.

I would then light the subject with my speedlights from a more sideways position. Depending on your required look, this may involve using multiple speedlights. This is for increased power and also to light background areas.

Speedlight For Indoor Portraits

In another scenario, the ambient light may simply just be too diffused, resulting in flat light, which means that the portrait may lack drama and definition. Yes, too much of a good thing is sometimes bad.

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

With the right guidance, flash photography can be a powerful tool in your lighting arsenal that will help your portraits shine even in the worst possible lighting conditions.

Andy Lim
Author of SimpleSLR Photography Guides