Portraiture and using flashguns

This is a huge article, so here is an overview of different chapters or paragraphs in this article so you can jump around more easy:

  • Intro: Why the camera flash is not good enough.
  • Step 1: Using a single flash gun
  • Step 2: Bounce the light using a single flash gun
  • Step 2.5: “The Black Foamie Thing”
  • Step 3: Buying extra gear; The diffuser cap
  • Step 3.1: The mini soft box
  • Step 3.2: A remote release tool
  • Step 3.3: A flash stand
  • Step 3.4: A second flash (fill)
  • Step 4: Results of different setups
  • Step 5: The future

Taking really stunning portraits boils down to loads of things, but the primary and absolutely most important thing is light control. Controlling the light can allow you to make people look older, younger, slimmer, ill and any range of looks. A very good example of this can be seen in this video where a model is exposed to a rotating light, creating all kinds of shadows.

Sparkles and Wine – Teaser from Nacho Guzman on Vimeo.

How you control the light is up to you. In some cases you don’t even need to do anything but put your model at a certain spot by a window. It all depends on how you want your picture to look. The amount of tricks, techniques and setups are so extensive that to try to cover them all in one article is just not possible. I will cover a few here, but really, the sky’s the limit.

Lets start by talking about flash. When do you use flash? This is unfortunately something you just have to figure out for yourself. Just remember that it is not always a question of having enough light. It is often more about controlling what direction the light is coming from, and even from how many directions. For example: Many photographers will use flash even outdoors in the sun to either add shine and/or shadow at desired areas.


Why the camera flash is not good enough

Step one is to get an external flash unit, popularly called a flashgun, or a hot shoe flash. (A hot shoe is the connection slot on top of your seeker window on the camera). And yes, if you intend to do photography where you use a flash you really do need a flashgun (or a flash cannon which is a much larger flash that requires a power supply). First of all, not all SLRs have an integrated mini flash, and secondly, the ones that do struggle with power and reach issues. It just isn’t powerful enough to reach very far (ie. it can only light up a rather small area), nor is the light thrown off it particularly flattering. It’s main problem is that it is not powerful enough to really “bounce” off anything, and that the light source is so small. The “bounce” is good because it allows light to reach the model from multiple directions. This may “soften” up the shadows, which is considered flattering on a face. (Unless you want to do fashion photography which seems to have taken a liking to using harsh, hard light as of late).

I want to take a moment to explain why the size of the surface of your light source matters. Imagine a square that shines light out one of its sides. We can easily imagine the light that is spread out from this square to be directly related to a square light on the wall, but that’s not what happens. You’re going to have more or less a circle of light on the wall. This is because every single millimeter of light surface is not just directing its light in one direction. It’s lighting up in all directions. This means that the parts of the wall that are lit by the very right side of the square, are also in some degree also lit up by the very left side of the square. What this means in practice is that if a person is lit up predominantly by the right side of the square, then the shadows cast by the person will at some degree also be lit, or diffused, by the light on the left side, in addition to any reflected light coming from any other direction. Consider these diagrams:

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 16.10.05Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 16.17.00

In the top diagram, we have a small source of light, and in the bottom we have a larger source. Notice how the cones of shadows from the model points 1 and 2 are much shorter on the bottom one? That is because there is a larger source of light that evens out the shadows cast. There will still be shadows as most of the light travels in a direct angle out from the source, but some also travel in all other directions, thereby evening out the shadow’s edges. Also important: Notice how the size of the shadow cones decrease as the models are placed closer to the light source? The lesson to take with you from this is that the closer the flash is to the model, the better.

Step 1: Using a single flash gun

Ok then, say you now have a single flash gun. What can you do with it? That depends a little bit on what flash gun you bought. Some must be placed in a hot shoe to be able to trigger, but the better quality ones can also be remotely triggered through the use of another flash, like your integrated flash (if you have one). In practical terms, you are assigning that flash as a “slave flash”. What this does is that a sensor will detect when a flash has been fired and promptly fire its own flash as well. This happens over a matter of nanoseconds and will to both you and the camera seem to be happening at the same time. The problem with this is that if you only have one flash, then the only other flash you can use to trigger the remote is the flash on your camera. This means that you are still exposing your model to a “flat” light. This doesn’t make it impossible however, as you can still “overwrite” the light from the camera with stronger light from the flashgun, but it will require some fiddling in manual settings.

Do note that when using a flash gun you should finely tune the settings for the light intensity. It can be quite easy to really overdo it on this bit so use all the tricks you know to keep the flash intensity as low as possible while maintaining a good exposure with decent camera settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO).

Ok, lets start looking at different setups and why you want to/do not want to use this. I had some help from my friend Helle who stood as a model for me to get these demonstration shots, so let’s take a moment to applaud her! *wohoo!* Ok, that’s enough. Lets start out by imagining that you have now connected the flashgun to the hot shoe. It is pointing directly towards your model and you’re ready to shoot. You take your shot, but when you take a look at the picture it is not all that different from when you used the implemented miniflash.

Flash connected to the camera hot shoe, pointing directly at the model. Camera: 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EXII at 1/8 -0,7

Flash connected to the camera hot shoe, pointing directly at the model. Camera: 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EXII at 1/8 -0,7

Even though I used a rather expensive, fancy flash gun, the picture is still “flat” and the light is pretty harsh. You will also notice on the back of her hair a glowing light. This is actually from the windows, and only shows that you can in fact use already existing light in a room even though you use a flash. In this case it does not really match up as the two lights just seem very different. One is harsh and hard, the other soft and warm.

If you compare your shot to a picture taken with the built in flash, you should also notice that a larger portion of the background is also lit up, simply because the flash is more powerful than the miniflash. A problem you may notice is that any shadows, both on your model and the background, will be very “hard”. Notice the shadow under Helle’s chin on the picture above, and how there is really no shadows anywhere else on her face. Everything is just lit up like a christmas tree on fire. We say that the light from the flashgun is very hard. We need to “break it up”.


Step 2: Bounce the light using a single flash gun

There are several tricks to break up the light from a flash gun. The simplest and cheapest way is to use the ceiling (or a wall) to “bounce” the flash off. By directing your flash indirectly towards your model via the ceiling (or wall), you may decrease light intensity, increase the size of the light source and thereby “soften” up the light. The light will also come from an angle above, which will create shadows in flattering areas (most prominently underneath the chin).

compare 2

Left: Flashlight pointing at an angle up to the ceiling while not wearing a flash diffuser cup (more about diffuser caps soon). Right: Same as left, only this time wearing the diffuser cap. Both shot at 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100, with flash: Canon Speedlite 580EXII set to 1/4 +0.3

There is not a lot of difference in these two shots (above), but you may notice the colours on the right image seems a bit more “vivid” perhaps. This is most likely because when wearing the diffuser cap the light got broken up into several other directions, allowing more light from other angles to reach Helle, in particularly from the windows behind her. You should also notice there is more shine in her hair (on the right). Because the diffuser cap creates a “bulb” of light on the flash, you can get a better shine effect in shimmering objects simply because a bit more light than before is directly hitting the model. (I will very soon talk more about this diffuser cap, don’t worry).

You don’t have to use the ceiling either. By pointing the flash at an angle via the walls can create more light on one side of the face, which can create a more dramatic feeling in the portrait. A face with more light on one side than the other may create the illusion of a more narrow face by simply pulling more focus on just one of the sides. It also adds a sense of drama to the picture.


Step 2.5: “The Black Foamie Thing”

One thing you should be aware of when doing this: Even if you point your flash towards the wall or the ceiling, some direct light from the flash gun will still hit your model. By holding something straight and dark up from your flash, pointing the same direction as your flash is directed, you may block out this light and only get indirect light from the sides. This is a trick I picked up from reading Neil van Niekerk’s blog. He refers to it as “the black foamie thing“. It is definitely a recommended read. I would also recommend reading his other articles as well as he is quite the talent when it comes to flash photography.

In the two pictures below I have tried to show the difference in using this technique. On the left, a picture where I shot the flash directly into a white wall next to us. On the right, I used something to block out the direct light. We were a little closer to the wall than I’d like, but the point still shows.

compare 1

Comparison of without/with “the black foamy thing”. Left side: 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EXII at 1/8 without “the black foamy thing”. Right side: 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash Canon Speedlite 580EXII at 1/4 with “the black foamy thing”.


Step 3: Buying extra gear; The diffuser cap

Ok, I promised I’d talk more about the diffuser cap. Good news: It is relatively cheap, and yes, you should get one, even though it is a very simple tool. You can even try to make your own using various household items. If you want to try this last solution I recommend using Google to find a guide for some guide for a homemade diffuser.

While other, more expensive diffusers work largely by creating a larger source of light, a diffuser cap is somewhat different. The diffuser cap does not make a larger source of light at all, but it is fit to the flash in a way that a hat would fit to a man. What happens when you fire your flash with this thing on? I have tried illustrating the effect:

Flash fired without diffuser cap

Flash fired without diffuser cap

Flash fired with a diffuser cap

Flash fired with a diffuser cap

With a diffuser cap, your flash ends up sending light in a wider angle than before because it now has edges that light up in more directions than just one. This fills the room to a larger degree with the flash light, allowing light to bounce off more walls and ceilings than before. This bounced light will fill out the room better, and may also create a softer light on your model as light may hit your model from more angles. It is worth noting however that you may find yourself needing to turn up the strength of your flash a bit when using it.

Lastolight's Mini soft box

Lastolight’s Mini soft box


Step 3.1: The mini soft box

A second option is a soft box. This increases the size of the light source, thereby helping to break up the shadow edges. There are different sizes of soft boxes. Some are really big, some are small, some are tall and narrow, and so on. Some are even small enough to fit to your flash while your flash is connected to your hot shoe without blocking your camera’s field of view. A soft box will reflect all the light your flash sends out in a certain direction, giving more focused light, while also creating a larger source of light. These small ones are the only relevant ones right now, as we haven’t talked in detail about getting your flash off your camera yet.


Step 3.2: A remote release tool

Ok, it’s time we got your flash off the camera. To do this you should buy a remote connection. There are several kinds, but the two main approaches are 1) A wired connection that basically connects to your hot shoe and creates a new hot shoe connection for the flash in the other end of the wire. And 2) A wireless option. The downside of the wireless option is that it requires batteries, which means that if you go to a photo shoot then you will always need a backup of batteries. What you gain though is less chance that either you or anyone else will trip in your wires. There is also often a limit to how long the wires are, and while there is a limit to the range of the wireless too, it is still far greater than wired. You also won’t have to always make sure that the cable doesn’t show in your picture. You also gain the bonus of easily being able to connect several flash guns to your setup by simply purchasing additional wireless receivers.


Step 3.3: A flash stand

Another thing that you kind of need is either one or more friends who can hold your flash for you, or you need stands that can hold your flash. For this purpose, you can either buy or use a camera stand. While I recommend you own at least one camera stand, I cannot recommend you buy several to hold your flash guns. Here is why: A camera stand needs to be much more sturdy than a flash stand needs to be. For this reason, a camera stand is way more expensive. You can get a decent flash stand for 1/4 – 1/5 of the price of a decent camera stand. Another difference is that a flash stand will also be able to extend way higher than a camera stand will. While a camera stand usually stops at somewhere between 1.5 meters and 1.75 meters, a decent flash stand can go to 3 meters and even a bit higher.

A flash umbrella diffuser

A flash umbrella diffuser

What I normally do when using a single-flash setup, I try to keep the flash from an angle above and somewhat to the side (see example below). This gives slightly more light on one side of the face than the other, while also giving shadows that compliment facial features. This gives the face depth, soft features, and flattering light on key features of the face. You can also light up a model from directly above you yourself, pointed at your model. This will light up the face evenly, but still also create the shades we want.


Step 3.4: A second flash (fill)

The next step is to get a second flash, and preferably also a second wireless receiver to remotely trigger the flash. This unit too should be broken up using a soft box or umbrella. Now there are even more light settings you can experiment with. Now we can also introduce a couple of terms used when talking about lighting. We say that we have a primary, or key, flash. This is usually just one flash that is set to be stronger than the others, most commonly the flash lighting up the model’s face. Other flashes besides this one are referred to as fill light.

Normally, just like with just a single flash, we want the key flash to be reaching the model from about 45 degrees to the side and a bit above. Now you can start positioning the other flash. A commonly used technique is to place a fill light above and a little to the side (like 70-80 degrees above the model). This light will put shine on the head and shoulders, bringing the model out of the background. It is also not very uncommon to use the sun this way when shooting outside. At this point, the sun becomes the key light (as it is strongest), and your flash fills out the shadows cast by the sun.


Step 4: Results of different setups

Allright. Now I’ve mentioned some techniques and setups. Now I will show you some demonstrations of how portraits may look when using different setups.


White umbrella, straight in front of the model. 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EXII set at 1/8.

In this shot, I used a white umbrella directly above the camera. I held it as far down as possible without it getting into the shot. Notice how the shadow underneath her chin is pretty soft (ie. the edge is not sharp and it is still possible to make out details in the shaded area) and how her face is more or less evenly lit up without any .


White umbrella, around 45 degrees to the side of the model, at the same height as her face. Shot at 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash: 1/8 -0.7

In this shot, you notice that a lot of the shade beneath her chin is gone. There is also somewhat more light on the left side of her face than her right, but the light still makes the lit surfaces seem flat, despite the soft shadows.

White umbrella, 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees above the model. 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash at 1/8 -0.7

White umbrella, 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees above the model. 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Flash at 1/8 -0.7

In this shot I raised the umbrella so it was pointing more or less 45 degrees in a downwards angle to her. Notice how the shadow underneath her chin has come back, this time not just underneath, but also some on the sides of the edge of her chin. There is also more light on the left side of her face. The back of her head is also lit up by natural light from the windows, helping to “bring her out of the background”.


Two flashes. Key flash wearing white umbrella, 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees above model at 1/8 -0.7. Fill light wearing mini soft box, 90 degrees to the side of the model, level height, set to 1/8

In this shot, I have used two flashes. The key flash is in the same position as the picture before this one, but there is also another fill light coming right from her side. It gives light on her shoulder and the side of her hair. One downside may perhaps be that you can see some shadows on her face coming from the falling hair, but it is not really a big problem.


1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Key flash: White umbrella 45 degrees to the side and above, set to 1/8 -0.7. Fill mini soft box 90 degrees to the side of the model, level height, set to 1/8.

1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Key flash: White umbrella 45 degrees to the side and above, set to 1/8 -0.7. Fill mini soft box pointing directly towards key light, level height to the model, set to 1/8.

This is basically the same shot as before, only this time the fill light has been moved to a position that is aligned to the key flash. They are basically lighting towards each other with the model in the middle. This lights up the back of her hair and somewhat her cheeks. This helps bringing the model out of the background, which is a good thing. (Do note however that if you blast the model with too much light from behind, you’ll bring her so out of the background that she may actually look like she has been cut into the picture). This setup can give a more natural feel to the picture, by letting the fill light take on the role of a window and give a light that is more likely to be natural.

1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Key flash: White umbrella, 45 degrees to the side and above, set to 1/8 -0.7. Fill flash: Mini soft box, oposite of key flash, pointing in a downwards angle to the model, set to 1/8.

1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100. Key flash: White umbrella, 45 degrees to the side and above, set to 1/8 -0.7. Fill flash: Mini soft box, oposite of key flash, pointing in a downwards angle to the model, set to 1/8.

This setup is usually my “go to setup”. I like how portraits using this look. There is more light on one side of the face, there is more shades beneath the chin, and the top of her hair shines nicely, making both the model come out of the background as well as giving a sense of her hair shimmering. A downside to using this technique is that you need to be aware of the model’s pose. Too much to either side and you may either lose valuable shadows, or get too much of it.


Step 5: The future

I feel it also should be worth mentioning a trend that is slowly making its way into the photographer’s light studio. Replacing your flash units with a high watt worker lamp (for example an LED lamp), or even a continuous lighting created specifically for photo shoots. These allows the photographer to better see how the picture will actually end up when shooting, instead of having to take a picture and try to see on the tiny screen how it ended up. These do usually however require some power supply and are in general not a very good solution if you have to go outside or some place where you don’t know for sure that you can connect to a power socket. (There are of course solutions that allow you to bring a power supply with a generator or large capacity batteries out into the field if you have the money and don’t mind carrying a lot of stuff before starting your shoot).

Experiment with different angles, but here’s a useful tip: If you find a setup that works, draw a sketch of your setup and write down some details that may help you later if you want to recreate the look you just discovered. It is very quickly forgotten, believe me. There is also a very useful iPhone app containing tons of light setups. Search for Krolop & Gerst to find it. (Thanks to Heidi Dubourgh Pedersen for this tip).

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