How to Subtly Use Flash in Photography

How to Subtly Use Flash in Photography

Flash can be an exceptional tool for creatively lighting our images. Whether it be speedlights or high-powered studio strobes, there are infinite ways to create or augment light in our photographs. Photographers work extremely hard to create amazing lighting setups for dramatic effect or sometimes simply for their own satisfaction, but keeping the light subtle can often be the best way to make use of the power of flash.

I love flash, and any chance I get to use it, I will. I love it so much I run workshops on it in Seoul and even co-wrote a book on it with my pal Flash Parker. Getting the flashes out of the bag is not my first thought, but if I have the chance, I'll always try to create something different with flash. Sometimes, the light in a scene is good, but it just needs a little push to be fantastic. Sometimes, this means augmenting the light; sometimes, it means replacing it. Here are a couple of ways in which I use flash more subtly to enhance my images.

Replace the Existing Light

Nino Batista recently wrote an excellent article about creating shade and then re-lighting for beautiful results. Another simple way that I like to work in this manner is to use my modifier to block the existing light and then replace it.

For example, in the image below, I had extremely hard dappled light coming through the canopy. This was beautiful on the background, but I could not find a place to put my model where she would be lit in an even way. To counter this, I set up a Westcott Orb with a Nikon SB-800 inside and positioned the softbox between the sun and my model. This meant she was covered with an even shade. Then, I brought the flash up to match the power of the sun coming through the trees. This left me with the same moody scene, but a much more flattering light on the model.

The best part? Because the light is coming from the same direction and it matches the power of the existing light, there's no reason that I couldn't have found that light in the scene anyway. It's not jarring in any way and keeps the image looking natural.

Augment the Existing Light

When I walked into the restaurant below for the Italian Food Festival here in Seoul and was asked to make portraits of the chefs (5 chefs, 5 dishes, 15 minutes, of course!) with their creation for the event, I immediately spotted this beautiful door in front of a bank of windows. The light was gorgeous, but a little dim and possibly too soft for the gentlemen I would be photographing. It was also coming completely from behind me and bouncing off the tiled floor.

I had about two minutes to set up while they were plating, so whatever I did would need to be simple. I quickly got an exposure of the natural light to where I would be happy. That ended up being 1/40 s, f/5, ISO 640. I knew that I wanted some more shape from the light, so I set a small softbox up on the right hand side with an SB-800 at 1/16 power. The next step was to reduce my ambient exposure just enough to where the flash would have some effect, but not make the image seem overtly lit. I didn't want that "flashy" feel. By reducing my ISO to 400, the scene was two-thirds of a stop underexposed, giving my flash something to light, while not having it be the only light in the scene.

Use a Fill Flash Off-Camera

We often associate fill flash with TTL-metered fill on the camera, the sort journalists often use and camera manufacturers work so hard to make effortless for us. Putting your speedlight on the camera and letting the TTL system drive will give you this look, and it has its uses. But what if we moved that exact exposure off-camera? We could gain a more shaped result instead of a simple filling of shadows and a sparkle in the eyes. That's just what I did below.

We could see the rain storm working it's way down the road behind my subject here, but the light in front of him was too beautiful to be ignored. The sun still hadn't been completely covered by the cloud layer, and there was a gorgeous glow to it with the approaching storm. I grabbed a quick test on aperture priority to see what the camera would give me, and it was gorgeous, but I'd lost his face to shadow. The exposure of 1/8000 s at f/2 rendered the background beautifully, however, and I wanted to keep that.

Knowing I didn't have much time before we all got soaked, I put my SB-800 in the same small softbox from the image above and asked my lovely wife to hold it basically in the same position as the sun (slightly behind him and off camera right), knowing that the slightly softer light it cast from this close distance would wrap around his face and reveal detail I wasn't getting from the sun.

In order to get the flash firing at 1/8000 of a second, I needed to use Nikon's built in "Creative Lighting System" to allow High Speed Sync. With the flash in close and firing on all cylinders, I was able to get just enough light to bring up the detail in his face. I had my translator ask the main how he felt about the oncoming rain, got my final shot, threw all the gear in the bag, and we all rode off in the rain to a local store and had coffee until the storm passed.

In Conclusion

Flash doesn't always need to be garish or to look like it was lit to the average viewer. We can subtly use flash to augment our images by mimicking the existing light (as in the first example), giving shape (as in the second example), or filling shadows in a natural-looking way (as in the final example). If your first thought is to overpower the existing light and make it your own, perhaps try simply augmenting the existing light next time. It's a good tool to have in your kit, and can keep even the more flash-hating clients happy. The same techniques could be used for lighting objects or even your background/scene to great effect. How else do you use flash subtly?

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11 Comments

Jeff McCollough's picture

Is it just me or does the photo of the chef look out of focus?

Joe Schmitt's picture

Yes...and I also see the weasel in the wood grain on the right side of the photo. LOL!

Sean Gibson's picture

I'm glad someone else saw that... but I also quickly saw a wild boar sniffing his beer. On a little more of a stretch, the side of a monkey face on the far upper right of the image.

Bert McLendon's picture

There is also half of a raccoon's face on the left side of the photo. =)

I like to use a 600EX-RT in an octabox for outdoor portraits. Backlight the subject, dial the 600 to around -1/3, and shoot in Av, so I can control depth of field, and let the camera do the rest.

This was a really good article, I've been struggling with getting my speedlights to feel natural, I'll definitely give these techniques a try. Thanks!

Nelb Rodrigues's picture

Maybe it is just me but i personally hate flashs. I bought one to shoot when the light is not enough and my results are very poor. It just flattens out my image and all the emotions that comes from natural light only.
I still have to do a LOT of practice but i prefer my scene to be a little more dark than use a flash.

Great article though, i will KEEP trying until i get resultswith my flash.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I use natural light 99% of the time because I like it and it's easy and cheap to use, however I disagree with what you have to say about flashes, and saying the flash is at fault for flat or poor lighting, or that natural light has a certain "mood" that can't be achieved with artificial light are both misconceptions. It's you the photographer who is at fault, not the lighting gear.
Bad lighting is the result of a photographer's lack of ability to properly use the light source. Flat light is the result of not placing the light at an axis that will cause the lighting to have depth. Placing it at the correct axis, controlling the power of the flash, using the right modifier and making sure your exposure is correct will allow you to get the dark and emotional look you are trying to get, and using a flash will allow you to replicate that look every time.

But if you prefer the convenience of natural light like I do, by all means keep using it because it's wonderful. Just don't blame the gear you use for bad results. You can get excellent results with an old Rebel Xt, a $99 lens and a table lamp for a light source.

Great composure and lovely depth
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DJ Toman's picture

Important thinking on taking control of the light, which doesn't always mean drawing attention to it.