Photographing Laura – A Flash Lighting Tutorial

In part one I talked about a shoot I did with local model Laura. We took some photos outside in the bright sun and inside a pub. Now I’m going to explain how I set up my flashgun to take the photos.

I used a Canon Speedlite 580EX II, which is a very powerful and versatile portable flash for Canon cameras, but the same techniques can be used with almost any flashgun.

The first set of photos were taken outside in strong sun, with Laura laying on the grass. Now, if you’re relying on natural light, the best thing to do in this situation is find some shade for your model. The light in the shade is soft and flattering, but in the sun it’s just horrible (see photo right).

However,  if you have a flash, you can use that to overcome the shadows. In effect, the flash becomes the main lighting source.

I chose to position the flash to the side and held it in place with a tripod. This is partly a matter of taste.  Keeping the flash on camera gives a harsh, nearly shadowless lighting. Moving the flash to the side softens the light and creates a more directional effect.

I fired the flash with a sync cord connected to my camera’s hotshoe. I have one with a plastic dial that locks the connector down tight onto the hotshoe and it fires every time. An alternative (for cameras that support them) is to buy a wireless transmitter to fire the flash. Pretty cool and it eliminates the cords.

I also have a small plastic diffuser that slides onto the front of the flash. It’s a good idea to have some sort of diffusion to soften the light, especially when shooting women . Another useful gadget that I’ve seen is a small portable softbox that attaches to the flash (the photo to the right shows my lighting setup).

If your model is a man, or a woman with flawless skin, you can try direct flash.

In my photo, the sun was so strong that I needed to use a flash exposure compensation of  +  1 1/3 stops. This means the flash fired over double the light than if I’d left it on auto (see photo below).

If the sunlight wasn’t so strong I wouldn’t have needed so much exposure compensation, and in the shade you can use fill flash at one half or quarter strength – this equates to flash exposure compensation of -1 or -2 stops. It’s a matter of taste and adapting to the lighting conditions. Digital cameras make choosing the right setting very easy, all you have to do is take a couple of test shots and take a look at the LCD screen to see which works best.

This technique gets interesting when you start considering the ratio between the flash and the ambient lighting. Lets say your ambient light reading is 1/125 seconds at f8. Setting the flash to give the correct exposure at f8 would give a 1:1 ratio, more or less what I had with these photos.

But what if you set the camera’s aperture and the flash to f11? In this situation the model is still correctly exposed but the background’s underexposed by a stop, giving a result similar to this:

Remember that it’s a good idea to take notes of your lighting set up and flash ratios, so that after the shoot you can closely analyse the results.

In the Pub

Next we went inside. One of the local pubs has a battered leather sofa. I asked Laura to lie down on it and as you can see from the photo, the light is coming through the windows above her (see photo right).

The next photo (see below) was taken with just natural light, and it’s come out quite nicely. I was careful to make sure the windows weren’t included in the photo as they would just burn out. The sunlight has still burnt out parts of the photo but it looks ok:

It’s also possible to expose for the light outside and light the model with flash. That’s what I did with the photo below, I took the light reading from the windows and set the flash to automatic with exposure compensation at  -1/3 stop. Now Laura is lit by the flash, rather than natural light, but we don’t have any overexposure in the photo.  The background in this demo is boring but it’s an excellent technique when the scenery outside is worthy of inclusion in the photo.