Using a Speedlight for Outdoor Portraits

Dedicated monolights are certainly highly useful for portrait work, but they're also relatively expensive and rather bulky. However, almost every photographer owns a speedlight, and you might wonder if you can use it in place of a monolight for on-location portrait work. This great video shows you the benefits and drawbacks of shooting with a speedlight outside. 

Coming to you from Manny Ortiz, this helpful video follows him as he shoots outdoor portraits using just a speedlight and a modifier. Speedlights are something almost every photographer owns (or should own), and they can be quite versatile depending on the conditions. However, the problem is that they might not have enough power to compete with the sun when you're shooting outside, though it's not a total loss, especially if you're a bit careful about timing and your setup. Certainly, a monolight (especially with high speed sync) will offer you more versatility given the increase in power. However, if you're new to artificial lighting or simply don't shoot portraits a lot, a speedlight and a cheap modifier can make for a great combination to begin to learn lighting and to explore the possibilities. Check out the video above for more on the process. 

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Good basic video. Two things to consider. Often we shooting outside with any modifier on a stand you will need an extra pair of hands or some sort of set weight so the wind does not make turn your speed light into puzzle pieces. The second thing, often of sunny days, we use a Speedlight or battery powered monolight in conjunction with overhead screens to create a shadow and keep dappled harsh light off our subject.

Zave Smith

Actually the best approach in this scenario would be to ditch the modifier altogether, especially if your goal is to shoot environmental portraits (which is what he said wouldn't work). If you're shooting in direct sunlight, a "soft" light source doesn't make a whole lot of sense anyway.

GN / f-stop = distance, and you'll still be able to do it with a speedlight. Recycle time will still be an issue, but it works.

Brian Carpenter's picture

I just did my very first outdoor (non-natural light) shoot for a local sports team and used a speedlight and a shoot through umbrella. I gotta be honest, I was uncomfortable using a artificial light source for the first time and hadn't even operated my speedlights for the past 4 years (1 of them failed right out of cold storage haha, I had to overnight a new one to have a backup). I think the result was OK. But I have to say, I think I'm now a artificial light convert. I love the look. However, I was most def. limited by not having HSS as the day went on and had to just stop using the speedlight as it became useless. I was still able to finish the shoot just fine and the team was happy with the result. Also, the wind did knock over my light stand and damaged my umbrella at some point even though I had it weighted down with two 10lb sand bags. I couldn't believe it. You most def. need lots of weight on those stand legs, i'd recommend over 20lbs at this point as the wind that knocked over my 32" umbrella was maybe only 6-8mph.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I can shoot better HSS OCF photos with a single speedlight than what other photographers can with a strobe. Manny kind of proved it. I could shoot at 1/4 or 1/2 in bright sunlight. It depends on your modifier and yes it has to be closer but I wasn't wanting to shoot environmental portraits anyways.