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Lighting Your Outdoor Portraits

Photo by Derrick Story

When snapshooters ask me for the one killer tip that will improve their photography, I tell them to turn on their flash for outdoor portraits. Fill light coming from the front improves people shots dramatically. And to be honest, the same goes for enthusiasts. The technique for serious shooters is a tad more involved than simply enabling a pop up flash. But the rewards are worth it.

I like off-camera flash outdoors because it allows me to bring the fill light closer to the subjects. Doing so falls in step with the rule: the larger the source, and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the light. Plus, if I want to use a telephoto lens to blur the background, a hot shoe flash isn’t going to work from that distance.

You can use direct flash outdoors, but I prefer to soften the light. By doing so, there’s less shine to touch up in post production, and overall the images are more flattering.

My current favorite lighting tool for these assignments is what I call the FlashPole. I use a Manfrotto Xtreme monopod that has tripod bolts on both ends. This allows me to connect a flash with wireless trigger at the narrow end, making it easy for my assistant to position the light just as I need. It’s very easy to use, and the results are quite flattering.

Family portrait captured with a diffused flash. Images by Derrick Story.

Family portrait captured with a diffused flash. Images by Derrick Story.

I use a smallish 27″ umbrella to keep it from catching too much breeze. You can use any diffuser that you want, however, such as a small softbox or Rogue FlashBender.

The bottom line is this: Adding a quality fill light from the front for outdoor portraits provides a studio-like quality. Plus you can take advantage of those great backdrops that nature provides.

A terrific resource to help you further your portrait photography is The Portrait, 2nd Edition by Glenn Rand and Tim Meyer. They cover everything from composition to lighting, with lots of helpful illustrations.

Derrick Story is the photography evangelist for Rocky Nook Publishing.

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