I used to be a "Natural Light Photographer". I used to shun the use of flashes because of the harsh highlights they produced and fake look it gave to people in photos. I vowed to never use flashes.....because I had no clue how to use them. Secretly, I would look at photos that were shot with flashes and wonder how the hell those photographers go the shot to look so good. I watched some videos, but they were so technical that it sounded like Greek to me. It took one simple comment from a friend of mine to completely change how I thought.
On a MeetUp at 5 Pointz a few years back, I saw my friend Roy Hubbard shooting portraits with a flash. I had also been shooting portraits, but the sun was blaring so it was difficult to get a good shot of anyone with their faces and the sky properly exposed. I kindly asked him to see the picture he took and I was blown away. The sky was blue, saturated and properly exposed. The persons face was evenly lit and also, properly exposed. "How the hell did you do that?" I asked. He responded "Easy. You use your camera to expose for the sky and you use your flash to expose for the person." I had never heard anyone explain flash photography that way, which is why I was floored at the simplicity of it. I took years of practice to get comfortable shooting flash photography, but the basic understanding was clear with that one statement.
The concept of basic flash photography is simple:
- Expose for the background : when you decide what you want to shoot and where you want to shoot it, use your camera settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) to make the background as light or dark as you like. Note that you will be focusing on someone or something else, so take that into account when you're choosing the f-stop. Take a picture of just the background to make sure it's exposed the way you want.
- Compose your subject: place the subject wherever you want them for your photo. This sounds like an easy step, but you should be paying attention to the amount of light hitting them. This will help you with the next step.
- Expose for your subject: change the power of your flash to increase or decrease the amount of light that is hitting your subject.
Now don't get me wrong, this is a vast oversimplification of how to shoot portraits with flash. But one I got the concept of how to use it, I started to experiment with it a little more. And try different modifiers , and different camera and flash features to get different looks. All of a sudden, I started looking at people and thinking "I would place them in the shade, set the shutter to 1/250th of a second and put a snoot on a flash to get some nice, contrasty light". NOTE: "Contrasty" is not a real word. I do not care that contrasty is not a real word. That is all.
While the concept of how to operate a flash is relatively simple, you can spend years on YouTube watching videos about ratios, modifiers, catch lights, poses, gels, grids, bounce, etc. There's a lot more to portrait photography, but the great thing about using lights is that it gives you control. Control of light, which gives you the ability to create the picture in your head that you think is fantastic, but don't usually get because the light is not right or you're not that great at Photoshop. If you're looking for some videos on flash, I highly recommend watch Gary Fong videos. Gary Fong has a particular teaching style that is so easy to understand.
As always, I'll tell you to keep messing up pictures, until you notice you're not messing up so much! And check out the MeetUp page where we've scheduled and Intro to Flash event I'll be hosting at Adorama, where we'll shoot indoors, outdoors and raffle off some prizes.