Outdoors modifiers

Reader James asks:

I’ve read you advocating for unmodified on camera flash outdoors (as fill), and for on camera flash diffusers (Bounce card, Gary Fong,etc), but is there a reason you don’t use the techniques together? Why not use a diffuser while using fill flash outdoors? Wouldn’t that produce better images?

Good question, and one I am grateful you asked. To avoid confusion: yes I certainly do advocate modifiers outdoors.

Like an umbrella, as in this image:

(That image, by the way, was my tribute picture to Rineke Dijkstra, famous Dutch photographer whose work is in MOMA and many other museums. I was amazed that in The Netherlands, several people, when seeing this image, immediately said “That’s a Rineke Dijkstra”! Europeans really do have a great sense, and knowledge, of art.)

So why do I often advocate direct flash outdoors?

I have several reasons.

  1. Main reason: modifiers take power, and with a speedlight, you are fighting the sun at top power already; taking away a few stops of light (and you take away at least that!) is fatal: in bright sunlight you would now need to move the flash very close to the subject.
  2. Ancillary reason: It is quicker and simpler. Often, you have to move quickly; an on camera flash is convenient in those circumstances. Imagine carrying an umbrella with you when sightseeing in a foreign city!
  3. Ancillary reason: outdoors you are mixing with lots of available light, so you can get away with the shadows direct flash gives you: these are filled in by the ambient light.
  4. Ancillary reason: sometimes you want harsh shadows. Rarely, but it does happen!

And that is why I often use direct flash. But generally, modifier, softened flash is better, absolutely.


2 thoughts on “Outdoors modifiers

  1. I’m with you on the convenience issue, Michael- a couple of stands plus umbrellas, diffusers, etc. adds up to a lot of stuff to carry.

    What I’m less clear on is why speedlight power seems to have pretty much stopped at around GN 35-40 m. Power electronics (and batteries) have improved by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years; it ought to be possible now to make a hefty but manageable self-contained speedlight with a GN of 60 to 80 m. For some reason, the engineering effort has gone into more “features” rather than more power. I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys lugging 400 Ws studio strobes out to the field, currently the only way to get this kind of power

    • Hear hear!!

      Since speedlight power is so close to sun power, a little more would go a long way. But I suppose it would add both cost and weight, and most photographers are not pros who now how to use their flash outdoors, so I guess the market is small.

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