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Currently I'm trying to perfect my portrait photography, which I'm usually doing outdoors in soft light (either sunrise or sunset). My subjects are sometimes posing in front of a bright background which makes it challenging to take a picture where everything is properly exposed:

enter image description here

One of the solutions is to use a flash, but watching a video about various types of flashes it seems that for perfect outdoor light I would need either:

  • Someone to hold a reflector, which requires an assistant
  • A setup of one or two umbrella-mounted flashes, which would also be challenging alone
  • To ignore flash altogether and shoot bracketed HDR images

Is there a setup that would allow me to take pictures without an assistant and still get well-lit shots without harsh shadows? I've tried using the built-in flash with a diffuser but the results weren't good. I can buy a powerful external flash, but I need to be sure it would useful for my goals.

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Even a single off-camera speedlight with a fairly small modifier will make a world of difference for a shot such as your example. I've got both a 6x9 and an 8x12 version. The larger one has almost twice the surface area of the smaller and softens the light a bit better, but it can be more difficult to mount on the flash without it drooping and it also makes the flash less balanced (from a gravity standpoint) if you're using the small plastic foot that comes with most speedlights to set the flash on a flat surface rather than using a stand.

6x9 softbox

Getting the direction of the light at least 30° or more off the optical axis of the lens will allow the light from the flash to create depth instead of flattening it as it does when the flash is mounted on the camera.

One of the other prime considerations needed to make the shot look more natural is color matching the flash to the ambient light. Sets of "gel" filters that fit on the front of the flash are very affordable.

color gel set

If you're shooting in the 'golden hour' just after sunrise or right before sunset, put an orange colored filter in front of the flash. This will allow you to blend the light from the flash with the ambient light in a much more subtle way. You can do this even when using a small soft box or other modifier. Just place the strip of the filter on the front of the flash before you put the flash inside the modifier.

  • Would a flash bracket be sufficient? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Oct 8 '17 at 19:09
  • Flash brackets can help, but they're not as good as off camera flash for what you're trying to do. The advantage of flash brackets are mainly in the area of clearance considerations between the axis of the flash and the lens. Using a flash bracket allows using larger lenses without blocking light from the flash (both the main light and any focus assist lights the flash may provide). – Michael C Oct 8 '17 at 19:13
  • For shorter shooting distances a flash bracket makes more difference in terms of off-axis light. At longer subject distances the angles aren't that much different from shoe mounted flash. The whole point of getting the flash out of the hot shoe is to increase the angle between the lens' optical axis and the direction from which the light is shining on your subject. – Michael C Oct 8 '17 at 19:15
  • What can I then use to hold the flash off-camera? A tripod? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Oct 8 '17 at 19:22
  • You can use any type of light stand. A tripod is probably overkill but with the right thread adapters (most flash accessories use 3/8" threads, most tripods us 1/4"-20 threads) you can mount a flash on most tripods. I often just place the flash on an available object (A table, a chair. a railing or shelf, the ground) using the little plastic foot that slides onto the bottom of the flash (or wireless trigger attached to the flash). Such feet come with most speedlight flashes. – Michael C Oct 8 '17 at 19:28
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Any flash modifier that spreads the light out over a larger area will help you avoid hard shadows. Using multiple units from different angles will also help.

If you're using the flash on camera, there are a number of diffusers and reflectors that'll helps soften the shadows a bit. For best results, though, use your flash(es) off camera and modify it with a large surface like an umbrella or soft box... The large surface causes light to hit the subject from a variety of angles, filling in and softening shadows.

Umbrellas and soft boxes don't have to be a big hassle -- a pair of umbrellas with stands easily fit in a small case. Wind is the major enemy, so add a medium sized rock or two to keep the stand steady, and choose a day that's not too breezy.

Also, shadows aren't necessarily bad -- they can add texture and depth that make a photo more attractive. Getting the flash off camera will also let you create shadows that look natural. Shadows make highlights possible.

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    Alternatives to medium-sized rocks: cheap ankle weights or sandbags, or using bungee cords and a ground anchor/screw. – inkista Oct 8 '17 at 21:55
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Outdoors in sunlight, the Sun makes the harsh dark shadows. An ordinary flash on-camera can fill those harsh shadows, so that they become very much less noticeable, but enough remains to add natural and pleasing tonal gradients on the subject (not flat deer in the headlights lighting).

TTL flash at -2 EV compensation (2 EV less than normal ambient sunlight exposure) makes a tremendous difference. This reduced fill case need not be a soft light, frontal light makes no shadows ON the subject. It merely needs to be frontal and about -2EV exposure. A frontal light also makes little if any additional shadow behind the subject since such shadow is hidden by the subject (if frontal).

Any added reflectors purpose is also to add a little more light in the same way, to lighten the dark shadows. The flash also contributes a little additional light on the subject, very much like an added reflector would do, but the reflector is NOT off camera, and can make its own additional shadows.

Such a fill light at -2 EV contributes about 20% of total exposure sum, and that sum contributes about 1/3 stop overexposure. It is not uncommon to reduce the ambient exposure by that 1/3 stop. That -1/3 EV ambient moves the flash up to 24% of total sum, still very reduced, still extremely reasonable, and subject overexposure is zero. Distant background is still -1/3 EV.

The flash can make the subject "stand out" from the background a bit, sometimes considered pleasing too, but only -2 EV mostly only fills the Suns dark harsh shadows, to become pleasing lighting.

Just try it once, a bare on-camera TTL flash at -2 EV flash compensation. Maybe -1 2/3 EV. You'll like it, if the flash is not set excessively bright. Camera internal flash can do this if the subject distance is not too far for the little flash.

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