Sun’s up. Do we need to use a flash?

There’s a scene in a movie ‘Yes Man” where a group of artistic hipsters are preparing for a jogging/photography -class. Just before Jim Carrey and hilarity ensues, there’s this bit of dialogue between a student and the teacher of the class:

“Alison? Do we need to use a flash?”

“Not when the sun’s up, Reggie.”

When me and Annamari watched the movie, we both went: “That’s not true!” Sometimes it’s even more important to use flash when the sun is up! While it’s true that flashes often become essential in low light when you’re shooting portraits, flash can actually be as useful (if not more) in the hours of daylight. Bright daylight often creates harsh light with a strong contrast that rarely is extremely flattering: you get strong, burned highlights paired with dark parts and black eye sockets – not the look you’re often going for. Sunlight is especially difficult to deal with when you are shooting against a strong backlight. That is when you need flashes.

Most of us don’t like using flashes. I originally didn’t either. I hated them, and thought that using flash = ruined atmosphere. But as I started experimenting with flashguns and studio flashes and bought a cheap-ass pair of remote triggers (cost me about 40€), I realized that they really weren’t the boogie man that I thought they were. On the contrary these days I love using flashes, as they help me to capture the scene as I want it, instead of letting the ambient light dictate the way my shoot looks.  Here’s an example from last weekend. We were out shooting with Annamari. I really wanted to take a shot of her with that lovely, bokehy backlight. This was the first attempt:

flash1bSo, while the background looks pretty good, Annamari is way underexposed. And I want her to be the main attraction of the shot, not the pretty bokeh. So, why not use photoshop? That shadows-slider is really handy, you know? While I could go the Photoshop way and process the shot until the cows came home, I would still be facing two problems: the loss of image quality and the lack of directional light. Even with a lot of processing the result would not be that great. So, enter a flashgun with a shoot-through umbrella on the right. And the results:


Much better, don’t you think? Just that catchlight in Annamari’s eyes was worth the effort of spending 2 minutes putting up the flash on a light stand. The background is still nicely exposed and the strong backlight is still drawing that lovely rimlight on Annamari’s hair, but the overall lighting of the foreground is much better.

Here’s another example of using a flash during the day. Flashes aren’t useful only with strong sunlight. On a dull, overcast day, flashes can work in a opposite way: adding contrast and direction to a flat light, making the subjects seem more three-dimensional and colourful. Few months ago I shot a wedding couple on this lovely location in Jyväskylä. The weather was really unstable: first we got rain, then it was cloudy and then we would get short blasts of full sunlight. This was the first shot that I took:

It’s not utterly horrible – you see these sort of shots everyday in newspapers. But it’s lacking punch: the couple is annoyingly blending with the dark background and the bride’s dress looks kind of gray. So after a few tries I asked the maid of honor to help me – I was shooting in manual mode and the settings are pretty much the same, but I handed the maid of honor a flashgun (1/8 power) with a remote trigger and asked her to hold the flash towards the couple from the right:

hää2c Again, much better! The wedding couple pops out from the background, there’s a nice directional light that still looks natural and the colors are much nicer!

Here’s one more example. Few months ago we were out shooting with our model, Laura (see Annamari’s blog entry). As the sun started coming up, we stopped using a tripod and went hand-held. The sky was looking wondeful with soft, warm colors. But the contrast between the sky and everything else was hard to deal with. So we decided to use a flashgun to light Laura. Here was the tricky part: we wanted the light to match the warm tones of the sunrise, but… flashes produce light that has a color temperature close to daylight (about 5500°K); so the light that the flash was producing was way colder than the ambient light. To get that warm tone we had to use a warming flash gel. So, I was shooting, Annamari was holding the flashgun with a warming flash gel and a diffuser. And here we go:flash3

The difference really is quite dramatic. But enough of this blabbering: I totally encourage you to dust off your flashguns, buy a cheap remote trigger (or an expensive one, if you got the cash) and try them out! I guarantee that they will take your portraiture to another level.


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