How to use flash if you don’t like photos to look flashy

How To

If I lay my cards on the table, in my personal and professional work I prefer to avoid the use of flash in favour of natural light. In an ideal world, I like nothing better than working with a fleeting beam of winter sunlight that glances across a face full of character, producing the type of photograph that would typically grace the cover of National Geographic.

The trouble is, as a busy corporate photographer, it’s much more likely I have to take a series of senior executive portraits from a basement office, generously artificially lit with horrible overhead fluorescent tubes, working to shoot directors who can spare about three minutes of their time and are itching to be off back to work.

So how can we make the best of the cards we are dealt, given that the photographer won’t have the luxury of moving the shoot to a beautiful outdoor location? The first piece of advice is to use the right type of flash.

Use a Big Stand-Alone Flash

The flash unit should be as big as it’s physically possible to haul around. If the flash is too small the lighting falling on the subject will be too harsh and produce too much stark shadow, resulting in an image that lacks authenticity.

The trick is to draw attention away from the lighting and direct it towards the subject. The flash needs to be mounted on a stand and triggered remotely by a trigger module on the camera itself. These days, we can use radio triggers which means there are no trailing wires, which is ideal for health and safety. A stand-mounted flash can also be positioned independently of the camera enabling shadow/light areas to be alleviated or increased according to the photographer’s brief.

Personally, I prefer simple flash triggers that can communicate directly with my camera but require no other equipment. This minimizes variables and eliminates issues with the consistency of flash power. A power setting can be dialled into the flash unit which will stay at precisely the same level for the duration of the photoshoot, but still allowing the photographer to make subtle variations to the lighting by moving the stand closer or further to the subject, space permitting.

A Portable Photography Studio

I use an Elinchrom Rotalux Octa Softbox with an Elinchrom ELB400 portable flash unit. It can be powerful when needed but when tempered by the softbox the lighting produced is subtly soft and shadow-free. The resulting images look as though they have been produced flash free.

There are other advantages to using flash. You can use it any time, any place and anywhere, so in reality, for nearly all my corporate shoots (and that’s about 300 a year) I use off-camera flash, and I find it’s even worth it when shooting wide open at F1.4 on a 50 mm lens because it gives a touch of contrast and can subtly remove shadows from under the eyes. For the untrained eye, it’s hard to spot in photographs but this lifts the images well beyond standard photographer’s fare.

If Space is Limited

If, as sometimes happens, there is no room for a jumbo softbox, I can bounce the standalone flash off the ceiling or a wall instead, as long as the walls and ceiling are not painted with bright strong colours because these would produce a strange reflected light that would look incongruous in corporate annual reports or marketing materials.

Use Manual Settings for Best Results

When using an external flash, I switch everything on the camera to manual, and that means everything. The trick is to prevent the camera from getting a whiff of a chance of doing something ‘automatically’ which will end up spoiling the shot. If there is anything wrong with the exposure when shooting manually the variables can be tamed with ease and corrected in seconds.

Controlling the Colour Balance

For example, does the subject look too orange? Then a swift glance at the camera and nudge the colour balance to the left towards the blue end and resume shooting, and all is well once more, the heart rate is back to normal, the medical crash team can stand down. Is the flash a touch too much? Then turn it down on the power pack a 1/4 stop. Is the ambient light too dark? Then ratchet down the shutter speed a stop or two, so the flash remains consistent but with more light from the room present in the image. It all becomes easy if you know exactly how to correct anything, and quickly. Always quickly, never faff around trying to work out which ‘portrait mode’ the camera should be in, the best one is never the one the camera offers anyway.

Reportage Photography, London Architects

Using a Tripod for Consistent Images

I thoroughly recommend a camera tripod. If you don’t own one, you won’t regret investing in this essential piece of equipment. A tripod removes another variable: skewed frames. Without a tripod, you risk having pressed the shutter on your prize-winning shot only to find that half the subject’s head is missing because you tripped at the vital moment. A tripod also keeps the composition consistent between shots, leaving the photographer free to concentrate on achieving a portrait when the subject hasn’t got his/her eyes shut and has the right sort smile on their face.

If you follow these simple steps and have the patience to lug the right equipment to your shoot, you will save a lot of wasted time and produce considerably better images. It boils down to knowing your camera, minimizing the variables, and being in the position to fix errors easily and quickly. I promise you will be more than halfway to a decent shot every time.

About the Author

Douglas Fry is the lead corporate photographer at Piranha Photography based in London and Oxford. He has been a professional photographer for over 25 years, photographing about 300 commissions a year around the UK and Europe. The photographic assignments range from company headshots and corporate portraits through to events and PR photography.

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