How to Shoot Flash Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

For many beginners, it comes as a surprise to learn that artificial lighting can be the key to getting a perfectly exposed outdoor portrait. The following tutorial reveals exactly how different types of lights can impact the overall aesthetic of an image:

The problem with using an ambient light source alone is its tendency to cast harsh, unattractive shadows that can completely mask specific details. Although the resulting image has the right amount of contrast and is generally well exposed, it’s clear that a picture using only daylight could benefit from some additional detail in the surrounding background as well as a more even light across the model’s face.

ambient light portrait

Luckily, this is where artificial lighting can come in handy. Depending on the power level of the equipment the photographer is using, strobes and speedlites can supplement or completely cancel out natural daylight. Though it may seem counterintuitive to solve a lighting issue with more light, bringing artificial lighting equipment along on a daytime shoot can provide some control over whatever the natural conditions happen to be.

As Gavin Hoey explains, using just a single ordinary speedlight, the ambient light of the sun is not completely overpowered. However, the difference just a single supplementary light can make proves to be quite dramatic:

portrait using speedlite

Hoey equips a StreakLight 360 WS Flash with a 32″ Westcott Rapid Box Duo for a more powerful diffused light. The result is somewhat surprising; despite the image being  taken on a bright, sunny day, the 360 WS Flash completely overpowers any ambient light coming into the scene. This causes the area surrounding the model to appear quite dark and the sky to turn a deep blue color.

portrait using Streaklight 360W Flash

In the final experiment, Hoey swaps the 360 WS Flash for the much more powerful Flashpoint 600 WS Monolight attached to a larger 38″ ParaPop Softbox. In theory, the resulting image should be about a stop brighter than the photograph captured with the 360 WS Flash. However, the image produced with the 600 WS Monolight proves to be quite similar. This is due to the fact that many variables go into how a piece of gear modifies light. No two products produce exactly the same result.

portrait using Flashpoint 600WS Monolight

“Having a more powerful flash doesn’t always equal more light, especially when the size of the softbox or modifier you’re using increases in size, too.”

Which equipment produces the best image? Is bigger actually better when it comes to working with strobes in an outdoor environment? Like any form of art, photography is subjective and there’s no straightforward way of determining what produces the best results. However, by understanding the effects that different types of equipment have on an environment, you can more efficiently plan and compose for whatever your perfect setup may be.

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One response to “How to Shoot Flash Portraits in Harsh Sunlight”

  1. Pushing down the backgrounds really adds focus to the image.

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