Flash Portrait Photography (Better Portraits with A Flash)

Last Updated on April 8, 2021

You can get studio-quality photos without spending a lot of money. It’s possible to use flashes for portrait photography, which opens up the world of studio lighting without having to purchase costly equipment or rent a studio.

Since the point of this article is to teach people how to take portraits with a flash, we should go into some detail about how it works. A photo of someone’s face can be evenly lit with a single on-camera flash that’s turned off-center, but when shooting from the side or from behind, you need two off-camera flash units — one as the main light and one as a rim light.

The flash is a common tool and easy to learn how to use. They’re affordable, too, which is nice since prices for studio lights can be high. With the right knowledge and equipment, anyone can create great portraits.

Why should I use a flash for portraits?

mother daughter portrait

The short answer is that flash helps to reduce shadowing. The lack of light can make a face and eyes appear dark. Shadows caused by the flash fill out the face, making it look fuller and more lively.

Lighting is also important in portraits, especially when you want to give your subject a distinctive character. If you don’t have a studio or set up lighting, you’ll likely rely on flash to get the job done.

3 Types Of Portrait Photography Flashes

mother son portrait

An external flash — used to trigger other flash units

A slave flash — triggered by the camera’s built-in flash

A commander/master flash — used to trigger slave flashes

External flashes are connected to a camera’s hot shoe and trigger other units. For example, one can control how much power is provided to other units. They also have a wide range of settings when it comes to controlling exposure and light output.

Slave flashes are connected to an external unit and controlled by a camera’s built-in flash. They can be quick, indicating that the main unit has enough power to trigger the slave. Slave units also have fewer settings than external equipment.

Commander/masters provide more control than slave units and allow you to control many other items such as zoom, shutter speed, ISO and white balance. Since they’re in-camera, they can be turned on and off easily without a cord or a hot shoe adapter.

What kind of flash is best to use for portraits?

mother and children portrait

The right flash is important since it controls which type of light is being emitted. A large aperture will also help with lighting. It’s best to use an external flash if you want to create a portrait that includes both the subject’s face and the background.

When you want to focus on the subject, use a commander/master, which will be used in conjunction with a slave flash or off-camera flashes. If you want to create a portrait that has a lot of background, use a slave flash — it’s smaller and cheaper than others.

An external flash is the perfect choice for portrait photography. They’re more powerful and have more settings when it comes to controlling the exposure. They also provide better lighting for taking pictures since they’re not connected to a camera like built-in flashes are. You can use them on-camera or off-camera, which gives you options when it comes to shooting angles and position.

How To Use Flash Modes For Portrait Photography

family portrait outside

There are two types of flash modes: auto and manual. Auto mode automatically determines the amount of flash coming from the other units and adjusts its intensity accordingly. The camera may also control power output through wireless TTL (through the CLS system) or second-curtain sync.

For best results, use manual mode which allows you to adjust the flash via a dial on the camera, via menus or with dedicated multi-functional buttons such as an optical zoom button or exposure compensation.

The camera takes over flash output when it can determine that the subject is within the auto-exposure zone with flash excluded. You can set the camera to automatically determine this by using a scene mode that includes an auto-exposure option such as portrait or landscape.

In some cases, additional features such as a spot metering option and dual-transfer function can be used to make adjustments to exposure. This is also where you can adjust how much power is given to the slave unit if it’s not powerful enough.

To be clear, manual mode is the best way to use flash for portrait photography. It gives you even and controlled lighting with all of the settings turned on or off according to your preference. If you’re going to use a commander/master, too, then it’s in manual mode.

How To Balance Flash & Confusing Settings In Manual Mode

family portrait at the ocean

It’s important to understand that flash is very powerful. It can help you create dramatic images of your subject and take away unwanted shadows from face and hair. It’s a good idea, then, to turn off all of the unnecessary settings that can decrease flash output. For portrait photography in particular, it’s best to leave all of your flash settings at zero or two-thirds power.

For portraits that include a lot of background area, use normal flash mode (with a commander/master). The commander/master will be used in conjunction with either a slave or off-camera units.

On Camera vs Off Camera Flash In Portrait Photography

There’s a big debate on whether to use flash on-camera or off-camera. Off-camera flash units can provide better lighting for portraits, since they’re able to be placed at different angles and proportions. As for on-camera flash, it’s best used when you’re in a pinch and have no other choice.

When you want the most control over your light source, then using an external unit is the best option. This gives you more freedom to adjust the lighting, angles and position of the flash. It also gives you more power to light up your subject and remove any unwanted shadows.

However, off-camera flash isn’t always suitable for portrait photography and vice versa. For example, if you need a big light source with a big modifier attached to it (an umbrella or softbox), then it won’t get past your camera’s lens without covering it completely.

Benefits of Flash Portrait Photography

Flashing lights can create images that are bold and dramatic. It’s a great way to give your portrait a sense of fun and lighten up the mood. A flash is also a great option for portraits of children when you want to soften up the harsh light.

Flash photography is also not too destructive to your subject’s skin and hair, which makes it a good option for portraits taken outdoors where there is more natural light available. If you do use on-camera flash for a portrait, you can further soften the light with a portable reflector device.

One of the best things about using a flash in portrait photography is that it helps to remove unwanted shadows, which makes your image appear more polished and professional. A little bit of flash can go a long way toward making your subject look better in their photographs. It’s important to remember that there are still different ways to light your subject if you’re working with only one flash unit.

Better Understanding of Light

There’s a saying that goes something like, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” The same goes for lighting. The best lighting is the one you have with you at any given time. With the help of a flash, you can create better lighting in your photos by learning more about how light can be manipulated to your advantage.

By using a flash, it will force you to get closer to your subject and find out what works best in terms of configuration and placement. When you use flash, you can also learn from other photographers’ experiences with the equipment.

You should always practice and take note of the right lighting for every situation to be able to create a balance between light and shadow. For example, if your subject is someone who tends to have darker features, you may need more light on them while keeping their face somewhat in shadow. The goal is to find the most advantageous combination of light for your subject.