EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE FLASH FOR PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

Mario’s Note: If you are interested in portrait photography, the article is mandatory: Vicente Nadal explains the different forms of lighting and flash types to get the most out of your portrait session. 

Do you want to make good portraits ? Read the article.

CLASSIC AND SOFT LIGHTING

As a general rule to photograph portraits we will need a soft light and that it is somewhat away from us and something above. Direct camera flash will always be the worst option. We will obtain the best results if we put an external flash located a certain distance to the right or left of our model and slightly higher than its head. We can also bounce the flashes to the ceiling indoors to create diffuser effect. In this case it is very important to take into account the color of the walls and the ceiling because they will color the photos with their color.

Left photo: main flash far to the right and secondary flash to the left. Central photo: just the opposite. In both cases the flashes are bounced to the ceiling and with different powers. Right photo: a flash from behind to the right and with greater power creates a backlight effect and illuminates the background; The main flash is on my left. In the 3 photos 2 Metz 60-CT4 Flash units bounced to the ceiling and manually adjusting the power were used.

DRAMATIC AND CONTRAST LIGHTING

Light can come almost wherever we want, even from behind and from above, creativity has no limits. The more behind and higher the more contrast we generate.

Three examples of overhead and rear lighting. There is no flash that illuminates from the side of the camera, all are behind the model and above it.

DAYLIGHT WITH FLASH OR REFLECTORS

In daytime outdoors we can use the flash or other reflective surface to soften the shadows and fill them. To improve the smoothness of the flash (whether day or night) we can bounce it against a large white surface, cardboard, a large piece of porex or even an umbrella (which I normally use). There are reflecting discs of different diameters and shades for this effect. Then we will see more accessories in this regard.

Lighting with a golden reflector. On the right example of the light it provides

DIY, ACCESSORIES AND ACCESSORIES

There are intermediate situations such as when we cannot separate the camera flash or we do not have a hot shoe flash that has a tilting head. In these cases we will have to use ingenuity to soften and direct the light. We are going to see some situations and what actions we can do as well as some accessories that may come in handy, I hope that I don’t miss anyone

Compact cameras and phones – DIY
The simplest case of flash lighting is when we take pictures with our compact camera or with the phone. In this case we have a very small, almost punctual light source, which is very close to the target. On the phones both elements, objective and flash, are playing normally.
This is the worst scenario we can have because the light it offers us is completely frontal and punctual. This will give us portraits with hard shadows and not very aesthetic.
Can we solve it or improve the result? Yes, of course you can, with a little ingenuity almost everything can be achieved … even if your friends look at you like a weirdo.
Since we cannot separate the flash and move it away from the objective we will have to settle for softening the light. The simplest method is to put in front of the flash any translucent surface, such as plant paper, a few centimeters from our flash.
We must be careful because the less light passes more problems we will have to illuminate our portrait.

A DIY trick could be the following:

  1. Take a regular plastic cup.
  2. At the base, make a window through which the flash of your camera appears. Be careful to make the window so that it does not cover the field of view of the lens.
  3. With an elastic or adhesive tape fix some translucent material.
  4. Do some tests. You will surely have to make some kind of adjustment.
With a little ingenuity we can make a soft box for our tiny flash

In short, any translucent element that comes between the flash and our portrait will cause a softer light … if only a little.
As we see a compact camera or a phone are not the ideal means to make a portrait with flash but that does not mean you can not try and have fun while doing it.

SLR cameras and bridge cameras – Accessories and accessories
In these cameras the flash is usually of the retractable type, which rises a few centimeters when activated. Still it is still a very small source of light and too close to the target.

Retractable flash of SLR cameras and bridge cameras

Here we could also place a piece of cellophane or vegetable paper fastened with adhesive tape to soften the light.
In the SLR cameras and in some bridge cameras you can disconnect the pre-flashes of the flash (usually in manual) and make it make a single flash at the time of the shot. With this setting we could use a photocell to remotely fire another flash at the same time that ours is activated. There are photocells that incorporate a shoe to connect the slave flash. If this is not the case, we will need this second flash to have the option of connecting via a synchro cable in addition to a shoe. Another option would be to have an accessory shoe with synchro cable.

In the center photocell with flash shoe, on the left photocell for synchro cable, on the right accessory shoe with tripod thread on the base and synchro cable.
Slave flash

This second flash can even be the main flash or leave it as a fill for the background or to reinforce a side lighting.
There are flash units that can behave like slaves and that react to the firing of another of the same family: the external flashes of the Canon and Nikon brands can be made as slaves of the flashes that have integrated these cameras in their SLR models. So we can create a small portable studio without investing a lot of money.

Photo on the right: Slave flash on travel tripod. You can see the synchro cable connected to its plug. We also see the translucent plastic diffuser that comes standard to soften the light. Its effect is greater if we raise the flash head.

The Nikon SB800 flash can be Master or slave. On the right configuration screen of the Nikon D600 to communicate with other Nikon flashes. From here you can control the power, the shooting mode and the communication channel.

A fairly inexpensive and little-known accessory is a spiral TTL sync cable that is placed in the flash shoe and at the other end has another shoe for our flash. This cable allows us a multitude of options, from mounting the flash on a strip next to the camera but further away or holding it with your hand away (a helper can do it) while shooting the photo. Being TTL transmits all the information of the camera to the flash and vice versa.

TTL spiral sync cable. Transmit all functions between camera and flash.

But for me the king of accessories is the radio receiver emitter for flash. With this accessory you can control several flashes at the same time and decide which one of them fires.

Elinchrom transmitter and receiver set. An issuer can manage up to 4 groups of slaves and decide which of them (or all) are triggered. Groups have no slave limits. They have a channel switch (8 frequencies) to avoid interference with other radio transmitters.

The transmitter connects to the camera shoe or X contact and emits a radio signal to activate the other flashes. The advantage of using the radio is that it does not affect the pre-rays made by our camera to measure the TTL light and can combine the use of a flash in mounted TTL and other external ones in manual. Currently there are already radio equipment with TTL but with a considerably higher price.
In fashion photography are usually taken with ring-shaped flashes. These have the advantage of giving a very uniform light in all directions without any shadow. There are accessories that allow our shoe flash to soften its light by creating a window (called softbox) around it or even mimicking a ring flash.
Although these accessories are not cheap you usually always have the possibility to find tutorials on the internet to create similar effects.

With any of these three accessories we will achieve a soft and uniform light

Finally, I would like to leave you a very interesting video that explains with live examples some of the most common schemes to illuminate a portrait:

As always, I hope you enjoyed this reading. Feel free to share this article if you think others may find it useful.

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