How to Get Natural Looking Portraits Using Speedlights

Have you noticed how most portraits have the same, predictable, studio-lit look to them? In the video below, veteran photographer Joe McNally explains how to use speedlights to get portraits that will come out looking soft, glowing, and naturally-lit:

McNally’s secret? Put a light in the direction the natural light would be coming from anyway. You might think you need a fairly large light source to do this, but speedlights have come a long way in the past few years. These days they can actually send light through layers of glass. All McNally used to get this effect, was his trademark set of ratcheting triflash speedlights on a stand and a TTL commander.

Using Triflashes For Natural Portraits

A typical portrait lighting setup for McNally.

 A Few Things to Remember

1.  If you need more diffusion, you can use dome diffusers on the speedlights themselves, but be aware—they take a lot of power.

2.  The most natural lights comes from above and far away.

“The further you put your lights away from something (i.e back away from the window you’re trying to light), the more natural the light looks, the more it looks and behaves like daylight.”

3.  Do a trial shot with a wide lens to check out how the light is playing throughout the room. This way you can move your model into the “sweet spot” of the light and adjust for any irregularities caused by lighting through a secondary element.

4. Be careful about including your light source in the picture. Whatever you’re sending your flash through will get VERY bright.

Triflash for Portraits

This portrait was taken using a triflash shot through a window.

Using this technique, you can accentuate the natural light; your shots will look much less like your average studio portraits.

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