Using Fill Flash For Outdoor Portraits; Informal Is The Word, But Style Is The Key

When the weather is nice outdoors, nothing beats an informal portrait. You do not want to shoot in the direct sunlight because your subject will be squinting. However, if you can find a shady spot under a tree, both you and your subject will be much happier.

So, how can you take the best portrait outdoors and still compete with the sun? The answer is usually right on top of your camera—the flash. You may not want to use the full intensity of the flash to combat the effects of the sun, but depending on your subject’s location, time of day, and hair color, you probably have more control than you think.

Grouping subjects by hair color, I’ll explain what techniques have worked for me on the warmth of a summer day and in the crispness of a colorful fall day. Beginning with brunettes, I usually have females sit under a tree and look up at the camera. They will be in shade because of the tree and the only ambient light is what is bouncing or reflecting off the ground. Knowing that dark colors absorb light (like dark hair) and lighter colors reflect light (blonde hair), I adjust my flash accordingly. Keep in mind the distance from your subject (I’m standing, she’s sitting) and their skin tone.

Here are a few rules to keep in mind: direct sun rarely works well; instead choose a shady spot and let your compensated flash be your fill light source. It provides the needed illumination plus benefits such as sparkling eyes, daylight-balanced skin tone, and less background/subject exposure variations.

I will always use the flash outdoors to fill in the shadows created by the sun, but in this case, I wanted to add illumination to the shot and make her eyes sparkle. This will be one of the few times I will use the fill flash at full strength. In this instance, the flash lightens her skin slightly, creates a twinkle in her eyes, and causes a mild shimmer to her hair.

Abbie—Dark Hair, Brown Eyes, Olive Skin
All Photos © 2010, Chuck Gloman, All Rights Reserved

Chris was placed in the shade of a tree with a much brighter background. Still using the flash as fill, I backed down the flash compensation to -1 EV. I don’t want the flash at full power because his skin tone is light and I want to avoid overexposure. The camera’s flash is daylight-balanced (5600?K) and an overcast day often causes a blue cast. The warmth of the flash added a little color to his light skin.

Chris—Light Skin, Dark Hair, Light Beard

Amanda’s eyes and hair closely match that of Abbie’s but her skin is paler. In this instance, I would also set the fill flash at -1 EV because I don’t want to wash out her skin tone.

Amanda—Dark Hair, Brown Eyes, Light Skin

Jeana wore a darker top. Both Amanda and Abbie have white tops that reflect ambient light; Jeana’s dark top absorbs light much like her olive skin and long, dark hair. With this combination, the fill flash needs full power to better match the sunlit background.

Jeana—Dark Hair, Olive Skin, Dark Blouse

Meredith has the bluest eyes I have ever seen. Wanting this feature to stand out, she is also sitting in the shade, wearing a top that complements her eyes, and needs the full output of the flash to deepen the blue of her eyes.

Meredith—Medium Brown Hair, Bright Blue Eyes

georgedrak's picture

Abbie's photo or the first picture you took was way more better than the other ones below it. I like what you did there because it perfectly matches her eyes,hair and skin. - Wes Upchurch