Hello Ladies and Gentlemen: 🙂

I was contacted last month by a novice photographer requesting information pertaining to outdoor light control in our natural environment. It’s my pleasure to help you along with this so your imagery will be more predictable up front freeing you from excessive workflow techniques at a later date. Always attempt to record the entire image correctly initially as opposed to spending hours later at your computer utilizing image manipulation devices.

I would like to speak to you this month regarding a technique for adding light to shadowed areas of your imagery, which has been utilized by photographers for decades. Back in the days of earlier photography, (let’s take the 1920’s-1930’s as a start), photographers would more often than not, leave their studios or newspaper companies to name a few businesses, with a 4 x 5” Speedgraphic camera equipped with “flash bulbs”.  (The use of flash powder in an open lamp was replaced by flashbulbs; magnesium filaments were contained in bulbs filled with oxygen gas, and electrically ignited by a contact in the camera shutter. Manufactured flashbulbs were first produced commercially in Germany in 1929).   These bulbs were a one shot deal so to speak. Once the shutter was tripped on the camera, the bulb would ignite lighting the area the photographer had their camera pointed towards. This was not the most reliable method of controlling flash light in an ambient environment however, it was all the technology available at the time. Unpredictability of exposure was consistent due to the fact that the quantity of light emitting from the flash bulb often overpowered the available light in the scene. This would frequently create several problems for lab technicians attempting to print these negatives into acceptable photographs due to extreme overexposure. (It would be almost impossible to deal with this level of overexposure with today’s digital cameras!). The lab tech would have to make a series of tests of the negative calculating the correct amount of exposure when printing the photograph. This is why on many images of yesteryear, you may have noticed the background of subjects being unusually dark. (Dark to the point of being completely black at times). The thought process of this “additive light control” particularly for outdoor portraiture had it’s merits, and it often cancelled deep shadow areas on faces that the sun creates on outdoor imagery of people.

Today, we have much better predictable methods of additive light control from portable electronic flash units.

*I would like to politely comment on photographers who refer to themselves as “natural light photographers of people” meaning, they never choose to utilize electronic flash in their outdoor photography. This mindset simply stated is referring to people who do not understand how to control flash in outdoor settings which would unquestionably enhance their imagery “and” save them tremendous amounts of time “doctoring” their photos in programs such as photo shop for example.

Here are some suggestions for you when using flash outdoors using a couple of popular formats being smaller point and shoot cameras, and products of a more common size such as interchangeable lens cameras.



Small sized portable cameras frequently have electronic flashes built into them. Turn your flash on when outdoors at the time you are beginning your photography. Most cameras built in flashes will sense the amount of light falling onto your subject and attempt to adjust themselves accordingly, however you must realize that the size of this flash unit is extremely small and can only produce so much light. The farther you are in distance from your subject, the less effect the flash will have on your subject. Also, when the flash fires, the quality of light from any flash is typically a hard quality of light. To alter the characteristics of the light, a simple very small piece of kleenex tissue cut to the size of the flash itself and taped over it will soften the harsh light somewhat. The kleenex will now act like a diffuser. When the flash fires with the kleenex over it, the flash unit will most likely require a little more time to fully recycle because the sensor realizes that more power was needed to trip the flash because it was covered with a thin layer of kleenex.

Another tip “if your camera permits it” is to access the menu of the flash and change it’s ISO setting to a different ISO either increasing or decreasing the sensitivity of the flash for your desired effect. For example, if your camera is set at ISO 400 for arguments sake, you could set your flashes ISO to 200, which is one full stop less than what the camera is set at. This means that the flash will produce a weaker amount of light each time the shutter is tripped and will act more like a fill in light as opposed to a main light in conjunction with the existing ambient light. Should you choose to make your subject stand out more against the background, set your flash to a higher setting using the example above to ISO 800; the flash will be one full stop brighter than the ambient light acting more or less as a main light. (This example is very similar to the flash bulb scenario I described above).



Most of these more sophisticated cameras menus offer a wide diversification of settings for image creation and flash control. I would recommend you setting the flash for one stop less light when doing outdoor photography of people. I say people because it would not be realistic trying to photograph large buildings or comparable sized objects. Your flash unit would never have the capacity to deliver enough light to record the buildings accurately. You have a couple of options regarding altering the intensity of light emitting from your larger sized flash unit. One is similar to the above example, which is setting it’s ISO to a smaller number as mentioned. For example….if your camera is set for ISO 200, you could set your flash at ISO 100 producing a weaker light. Alternately, you could simply set the aperture setting of the flash to a weaker f-stop which would achieve the same effect. The majority of separate-(not built into the camera flashes) have F-Stop settings to control their output. One of my flash units ranges from F1.8-F-22. That is a very wide range of light output controls you have at your discretion. If you own a flash that has this level of adjustments, try varying it’s output the next time you have someone to act as a model. With the viewing screen on the back of all digital cameras, you will be able to quickly judge which quantity of light output you prefer.



I would recommend if possible, you carrying along a medium weight light stand that you can attach your flash to when going on location. The idea behind this is to move the actual flash away from the axis of your lens. Placing the flash on a stand at approximately a 45 degree angle over and aimed down at your subject will produce a much more pleasing light effect on them as opposed to having the flash placed beside a camera lens. Elevating your flash on the stand to roughly 3 feet above your subject will work quite nicely. It will create a bit of “modelling light” on your subject enhancing their features as opposed to flattening out the image which direct flash does. A simple PC connector cord available at most camera stores, will permit you to place the flash off axis with this connection, and each time the shutter is tripped, your flash will fire. Alternately, you could use “radio remote” slave units. These devices do not require connector wires attached to the camera and flash. You need two items for this system to operate……..one being a “sending unit” which commonly affixes to your cameras hot shoe, and another “receiver” attached to your flash. This is a very convenient system to use because of no connector wires being needed from the camera to the flash however I should mention that these radio remote signal devices do have a limited range. In other words, your flash can’t be overly far from the camera at the time the shutter is tripped otherwise, the receiver on the flash unit will not “see or recognize” the signal emitted from the sending unit. I have placed my “receiving flash” at least 30 feet from the camera and the system has operated perfectly at that range. It would be a matter of you becoming accustom to how your particular devices operate through a series of simple tests.



***I use a professional flash/camera bracket when I work on location for handheld photography. This bracket enables me to place my flash higher than the camera lens by roughly 6” and off to the left hand side of the lens. Placing my flash in this position guarantees I will never have to deal with “red eye” plus the brackets design also enables me to lower the flash from it’s highest position to one where the flash is closer to my lens when I have to deal with height issues. What are height issues? When my flash is mounted on the bracket and is 6 inches above the camera lens, it is quite high when you have to get inside a limo and photograph a bride and groom for instance. The elevated height of my flash often hits the ceiling of the car making it very difficult to manoeuvre the camera in a limited space. By swinging the bracket, which incidentally is divided in two pieces, down towards the camera lens, the flash height is considerably reduced making it possible to easily record imagery without height concerns. There are several professional flash brackets on the market and I would strongly suggest you purchase one if you are intent on creating imagery in height restricted areas.



Now that winter is amongst us, and you find yourself wanting to use electronic flash outdoors, there are a couple of suggestions I wish to give you pertaining to battery usage. Cold weather has a dramatic effect on the deterioration of battery longevity. A freshly charged battery can rapidly discharge depending upon how cold the temperature is and add to that the speed of the wind, which further deteriorates the charge of your battery. Rather than place batteries in the flash itself, a better alternative is to purchase an auxiliary battery holder if your flash is designed to accommodate one. This device holds your batteries in it’s own container and is then placed under your jacket absorbing the heat from your body. This is an excellent method of elongating battery life because the cold is greatly reduced at this point. A common set up would be a battery holder/neckstrap placed around your neck and a wire attached to the holder that plugs into your flash. In some ways, this feature reminds me of an AC adapter hook up should you wish to run your flash from a wall socket as opposed to using battery power. Alternately, if you elect not to purchase this neck strap system, having several fully charged batteries available with you as “back ups” is well advised.

There are other topics of electronic flash to speak of but these will be a good head start for you. Give thought to these techniques when you have a moment to do so. The majority of information I provide in these blog posts is from first hand knowledge over many years of my professional photography.


Merry Christmas and the “Very Best Wishes Extended To You In 2023” !!!!!!

See you next year!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂


With My Good Wishes,

Jeff Ryan Photography/Ryan Studio Ottawa


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