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.


Bouncing and long lenses

When shooting an event, you would usually use a somewhat wider lens (a 35mm, say, or a 24-70) and bounce the flash behind you, upward – you have read this here many times.

But when you take candid shots with a longer lens, behind you does not always work: to get the righ angle of attach of the light to your subject, you have to bounce forward. I have mentioned this here too, but let me illustrate with an example.

Straight on is not good: hard shadows and “deer in the headlight” eyes. Even when combined with lots of ambient light to minimize this effect, it’s still not great:

But sometimes, bouncing behind is just too far. When you are far away, 45 degrees up but forward is better – but the problem is that some of the light goes straight to the subject:

See the hard shadow under the chin, in the picture above? Especially if there is a wall behind the subject this will be unacceptable.

So then you block the direct path with a bit of a flag (your hand right in front, or a reflector with the black side used to eat up the forward light – so it sticks jus a little above the flash head. You now get this:

So.. when you take flash pictures, just as in yesterday’s lesson: remember where the light goes!



What if there’s no wall?

I keep recommending that when you use TTL flash, you bounce it off walls or ceilings.

So what if there is no wall or ceiling?

Then you do the following.

  1. Ensure you expose the background well, with high ISO, open aperture, and slow shutter as needed.
  2. You may be able to bounce after all, when your ISO is high and aperture is open. Flash can reach farther than you think! So – try.
  3. You can move the subjects! Ask them to “move over here for a second” – near a wall. Every venue has some wall or other, or perhaps a low ceiling in one part of the room. No reason you cannot ask people to move!
  4. If that fails, bounce of “anything”, using a Fong lightsphere. Not creative light, so this is not your first choice, but it can save your behind.
  5. And if all else fails – direct flash, but perhaps still modified by a bounce card (or even a Fong thing aimed forward). And do not forget flash compensation.

So you see, there are always options.



Leading up to this Saturday’s Advanced Flash course in Toronto, with Guest Star David Honl, (just a couple of spots left), I thought I might share another flash modifier tip today.

And that is the use of snoots.

A snoot is a long appendage to your light that causes the light to be directed in a narrower beam.  So when you really want to direct the light to go just where you want to, and nowhere else, you use snoots.

The best snoot for small flashes like a Nikon D700 or D900 or a Canon 430 EX II or 580 EX II are Honl Photo snoots (and no, Dave is not paying me to say that – it’s just that I use them almost daily in my flash work, and love them).

The snoot is also the bounce reflector, just rolled up. So it stores flash and mounts as a sturdy snoot in seconds:

Remember, from yesterday’s post, the plant lit with a grid? If instead of lighting up the whole wall, I want to direct the light to a smaller area with a nice soft edge, I use a grid, like so:

But what if I want a more clearly defined light area?

Then I use a snoot. If instead of a grid I stick a short Speed Snoot to the flash’s speed strap, I now get this:

And if I want a smaller area? Simple, then I use the long snoot:

How do you often this type of snoot? As a hair light. Or in creative lighting: remember, creative light is not about what you light: it is about what you do not light. And that is what snoots are all about.

Grid and bear it

When you are shooting with multiple lights in a studio-like setting, one of the most important things is to shape the light; to control where it goes. And the problem with a bare flash is that its light goes, well, pretty much everywhere.

And one of the most annoying of the “everywheres” is the background. If you want a darker background in a small basement studio, say, you have the following problem: your flash, even if it is a side flash, lights of the background, so you just cannot get a dark background. You get something like this:

Darn, but you wanted a dark background!

In that case, you have three options:

  1. Move everything away from the background.
  2. Paint the background black.
  3. Direct the light more specifically.

Since options (1) and (2) are not always easy, I recommend you learn option (3). Use barn doors, or snoots, or gobos: anything to direct your lights more.

For small flashes, the grid is a fabulous option. A 1/4″ Honl Photo grid stuck onto the speed strap on the speedlight makes that picture into this:

That was easy! The grid stops the light from going everywhere – now we have a much darker background, since light no longer falls onto it.

The Honl grid is affordable (I have several), small, and looks like this:

Honl Photo 1/4" Grid

Indispensable for users of off-camera flashes.

(As you may have read here by now, David Honl, the inventor of that range of Honl small flash modifiers, will be my Guest Star in Toronto on Saturday. Don’t miss it if you want to learn Advanced Flash from the pros.)