Home / Chris Humphreys / The Day a Natural Light Photographer Busted Out a Flash for a Portrait Session

The Day a Natural Light Photographer Busted Out a Flash for a Portrait Session

I’ve always called myself a natural light photographer. If you visit my site and peruse my portfolio, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single portrait on the site where I used a flash. Like many other photographers, I’ll bring out aflash for the reception, but when I shoot portraits – whether at a wedding, engagement session, or family shoot – I prefer to find the light that exists naturally rather than create my own light. I’d even go so far as to say I have never used a flash during a portrait shoot of a couple.

Until this past Wednesday.

Christi and Ndu hired me a few months ago because they had missed out on having engagement photos done before their wedding, and wanted to hire me to shoot some photographs that captured them in their daily life. A few days before their session, the three of us spoke about shoot details and they mentioned they wanted to do part of the shoot in their apartment.

Alarm bells.

The interiors of most apartments just aren’t inspiring places to photograph. At least, they’re not conducive to the type of photography that I typically shoot for portrait sessions.  They’re often cramped, cluttered, and dark. However, they assured me that their apartment was large enough to shoot in and that their kitchen new, modern and would be a cool backdrop. I agreed to do the shoot there, though I wasn’t entirely convinced.

When I arrived, sure enough their kitchen was sleek and it did appear that their would be enough room to photograph. However, the one thing that their kitchen lacked was interesting light. The light was flat. Actually, very flat.

At this point, I had a few options. I could “make it work” with natural light or I could grab a flash and a light stand and give it a go. My main hesitation with using flash was that I knew that my clients would be getting a product that was different from what they have seen on my site. But as I was considering this, I also thought about what I tell every couple I photograph: my goal is to capture the essence of who they both are as a couple. Why should that goal be limited by natural light? If flash will better help me document their relationship, why shouldn’t I be willing to go that route? So, out came the flash and the pocket wizards!

We planned on doing part of the shoot indoors at their apartment and part of the shoot outdoors near Red Rocks Amphitheater. Because Ndu and Christi are a bi-racial couple, I quickly realized I was having issues finding the best exposure to balance both of their skin tones. Before I knew it, I was breaking another one of my “rules:” no flash outdoors in daylight. The flash came out five minutes into our shoot at Red Rocks and stayed out for the majority of the shoot.

Reflecting on the session, I realize this shoot was definitely different from any other portrait session I’ve shot. But at the same time, I accomplished the same goal that I always set out to achieve: I captured who the couple is. The flash probably helped me do that better than natural light could have. Not only did it help give flat lighting depth and character, it gave the images a different quality that better represents who Christi and Ndu are.

Does this mean I’ll shoot with flash for every portrait session from here on out? No. I still love natural light and the things you can do with it. But (and this is a BIG but) just because I choose to shoot natural light doesn’t give me an excuse for not knowing how to shoot with flash. I choose natural light, I’m not forced to use it because I can’t achieve results with flash. There’s a big difference.

Below are a few images that transpired from the shoot as well as techniques I used to create the images.  This is by no means a substitute for a Zack Arias One Light workshop, but rather just a few tips for natural light photographers who want to experiment with flash for portraits.

1. Get the flash off the camera.

I put my flash on a stand and triggered it with pocket wizards. This allowed me to keep the light directional and thus more interesting.

2. Soften the light.

I used a Lumiquest LTP around my 580EXII to soften the light. Remember the bigger the light source, the softer the light. The Lumiquest LTP surface area is over 40 times that of the flash head itself, so it gave the light a much softer feel.

3. Keep the flash very close to the subjects.

Not only does the size of the light source affect softness of the light, so does the distance of the light from the subject. A quick way to remember is the expression “The closer the light, the softer the light.” For almost the entire shoot, the flash stand was located just outside the frame, no more than 3-4 feet away from Christi and Ndu.

4. Use your shutter speed to control the amount of ambient light.

For the kitchen shots, I wanted to include the fun lights illuminating the backsplash, so I varied my shutter speed to control the amount of ambient light coming into the camera. Same with the outdoor shots near sunset at Red Rocks. By dropping the shutter speed I was able to capture the rich colors of the sky.

5. Play with creating interesting shadows.

Since I controlled the directional light of the flash, I wanted to create fun moods using shadows. The illustrator Howard Pyle once said, “Light illuminates, shadows define.” Keep this in mind as you’re shooting with your flash.

About Chris Humphreys

Based out of Denver, CO, Chris Humphreys travels across Colorado and the rest of the United States photographing weddings for discerning couples who want their weddings captured in such a way as to be true to who they are.

Chris has been blessed to have been recognized by several WPJA awards and to be names one of the top 15 wedding photojournalists in the world. Chris is also a sought after speaker and teacher for other photographers.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!