How to Mix Ambient Light and Flash for Outdoor Urban Portraits

Here’s is a quick tip for  mixing ambient light with flash to perfect backlit portraits. If you’re shooting with the sun staring right at your face from behind the model’s head, don’t fret. Simply follow these steps from photographer Manny Ortiz:

To start off, Ortiz sets his ISO at 100 and dials in his aperture at f/1.4 to get a shallow depth of field.

Next is shutter speed, which determines how much ambient light is to be captured. It basically controls how bright or dark your background will be in the final image. Ortiz prefers a background exposure of -1 to -1.7. So, he decides to use a fast shutter speed of 1/5000 of a second. He sets the flash at ¼ power. And in case some of you technical geeks frowned when you read 1/5000, yes, Ortiz was using high-speed sync on the flash. These settings, however, are subjective. You’re free to choose whatever shutter speed you prefer.

Note that you should lock in your ambient exposure first and then bring in the flash to fill in the shadows. If you need to make any adjustments to the ambient exposure turn off the flash and then make any adjustments before turning the flash on again.

how to mix ambient light with flash

Test Shot

As you can clearly see in the above image, the model’s face is underexposed. The solution is to turn up the power on the flash.

backlit portrait tutorial

The image above was shot with half power. It’s a much more balanced exposure than the first image, but without any catchlight the image is lifeless. So, you can reposition the light slightly to get catchlights in the model’s eyes.

catchlight in portrait photography

Final Image

As you can see in the final image, the catchlights really bring the image to life.

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One Comment

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks!
    Very helpful and succinct quickie tutorial on flash-fill lighting.

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