The use of outdoor flash offers the photographer the option to introduce a controllable light source to a scene where they would normally be restricted to natural light. Strong sunlight can bring harsh and unwanted shadows and most photographers will head out in the morning or evening during the golden hour where there is a soft diffused light. When this is not possible the use of a flash can help to control the shadows and even bring a unique creative style.
In most cases the outdoor flash is just a studio flash head that is connected to a battery to provide power. In our case we used a Bowens flash head and a battery pack.
One of the benefits for using outdoor flash is the ability to detach your subject from the background by manipulating the light that enters the camera so that the background appears much darker than it is. The two methods to achieve this involve reducing the natural light entering the camera. This is done by increasing the shutter speed or reducing the aperture. For this experiment I reduced the aperture.
To begin I wanted to take a normally exposed image. These next images where all shot at ISO 200 with a shutter speed of 1/125th second and we only adjusted the aperture. We started with an aperture of f/8.
Once I had these figures I was able to set my flash and camera up. The first shot in this sequence shows how both the subject and the background are evenly lit.
From here I changed the aperture speed by 2 stops to f/16 second. The smaller aperture reduces the light getting into the camera and without any flash the image becomes very dark.
We now introduced a flash at 90° left of the camera. The extra light is focused purely on the subject and the light reaches the camera sensor ensuring the subject is correctly focused. The light travelling from beyond the subject is still dark as this has not received any extra illumination.
Using the aperture to control the amount of light entering the camera is more effective than changing the shutter speed as it allows for a larger range of changes. It is inadvisable to have a shutter speed slower than 1/60th as it will start to show camera shake and over 1/250th of a second will cause the shutter to show in the images as the shutter passes over the sensor it will obscure the light trying to reach it. This will only allow the photographer around 2 stops of light to work with. Using the aperture you have 4 maybe even more stops to work with.
Armed with this new skill I decided to research some professional photographers that have used this technique.
This image on the above was taken by Ronald Koster. A highly accomplished Dutch professional photographer his work has featured on numerous magazine covers and in many various publications
By the way the light travels across the subject and the shadows in the face and across the body suggests he has used two off camera flashes, most likely to the upper left of the camera at around 45° and to the right of the camera at around 90°. By choosing to take this at a low angle he has placed his subject against a blue sky and then using the technique of lowering the aperture he has darkened the sky considerably. This method provides a huge amount of detail in the image and by lowering the back ground light it has really made the subject stand out and add a dramatic feel.
This next image by Ronald Koster uses the same techniques. From the lighting I would suspect that there were two lights used again in almost identical formation to his last image. The first is from the left of the camera and there looks like a second light coming from the right at around 90°. Despite the more complex surroundings and back drop which could have detracted from the main subject Koster has used the aperture reduction technique to reduce the brightness slightly, probably about 1 stop this time and this again makes the subject stand out.
Joey Lawrence is a young photographer that has self-taught his way to international acclaim. Even at 18 his skill was in demand and he was commissioned to photograph some of the world’s top music stars. This gave him the launch pad to take his art to a new level.
This image is from Brooklyn, New York and is from a series of images taken of the homeless. They are not random snapshots as Joey took the time to get to know each of the people he photographed. Joey travels around with a portable flash with a huge soft box. On this image he has positioned the light to his right side and reduced the camera aperture around two stops in order to darken the background. This method is hugely effective in this urban area and despite a busy background the viewers’ attention is completely focused on the subject.
This next image comes from Joey Lawrence’s collection from Africa called ‘The Cradle of Mankind’. Joey travelled to remote regions and met with isolated tribes to document aspects of their lives. He lugged his lighting around and shot his images using a medium format digital camera. With this image the subject is stood with the sun directly behind. This would normally cause a major issue with getting a correct exposure because without a flash she would have been very dark or even silhouetted. Spot metering may have got an exposure but would have lost a lot of impact. By using the flash he has filled the foreground giving the subject detail and definition and he has made her stand out from the background with clever use of the sun as a backlight and also by reducing the aperture to lower the lighting behind her.
I wanted to know more as this was a technique that I would be interested in using for the main task so took a few practice images.
It was a reasonably clear day despite a little rain and I set up at some steps at the end of an underpass. I asked my subject (Alex) to jump over the handrail.
Prior to this I positioned him near the area he would jump at and set took a normal exposure image. (left). Anticipating I would need a quick shutter speed as I was attempting to capture a fast-moving subject but also taking into account that I needed to keep the shutter speed under 1/250th second I made the image at 1/200th. This gave me an aperture of f/11 at ISO 200.
I then introduced the flash. I dropped the aperture to f/13 and adjusted the power output of the strobe to compensate. I then took another test shot to see the overall effect.
With everything in place the subject jumped the railing and we timed the image which came out like this.
For the next image I wanted to be a little more creative and see how I can manipulate the mood of an image by using the extra light. The underpass we were in had a very urban inner city feel so I wanted to see if I could recreate that feeling through the lighting. I used the same subject as he had a hooded sweatshirt and felt that he would make a good subject.
I positioned the light at around 45° to the right of the camera and aimed in downwards at a high angle. With the subjects hood pulled up the light hit the top and caused all the face to be in shadow. We were using an open reflector as a light modifier and this created a hard light with strong harsh shadows and I felt this was perfect creating the mood and attitude I was after. I took a few shots with different poses and at various camera angles before I settled on these two.
External lighting is a really exciting way to bring a new creative dimension to outdoor photography. Looking at the work of Koster and Lawrence it demonstrates how far this work can go. I am really interested in working with this system more and I would like to take the kit out into the countryside and work in some open fields.