Using Flash Outdoors In Daylight

You may think that shooting outdoors means you have all the light you need and can leave the flash at home.

I disagree.

In fact, I use flash more often outdoors in daylight than any other time.

Flash is not only useful when it’s not bright enough to enable a good exposure.  

You can use off-camera flash setups to create lighting that you can readily control and manipulate, either to enable flattering portraiture or create dramatic and moody lighting.

So if you want to take your outdoor photos to the next level with the addition of some flash, then keep reading.

The first thing you need is some flash gear. You can read our Complete Guide To Flash Gear here. If you shoot portrait photography, be sure to check out Off-Camera Flash For Portraits.

Why Use Flash In The Daylight?

Control The Light

Shooting outside in the daylight can be unpredictable and can create some harsh conditions. CLICK HERE to read some more tips about shooting in bright sunlight.

By introducing flash to your outdoor shoots, you can have more control over the light. You can fill in those harsh shadows, you can brighten up the eyes when your subject is in the shade, and you can control the direction of the light while still using the background that you prefer.

Bring In More Detail

Another benefit of using flash outdoors is bringing in more detail.

Often the best place to shoot a portrait outdoors is in the shade. This allows you to keep direct light off your subject but use the bright ambient light as a giant softbox of sorts. The problem with this is that in the shade, the light on your subject will be very flat.

So even in situations where I have sufficient light to light my subject, I’ll still use a flash.

I’ll add just a small pop of light on their face, just barely brighter than the ambient light. This will add life to their eyes and definition to the details in the photo.

Balance Exposure

A bright sky in the background means that your subject will have to be underexposed in order to keep any detail in the sky.

By adding flash to your subject, you can balance the exposure and have both parts of your image exposed correctly without having to resort to extreme post-processing techniques that don’t always look great.

Ways To Use Flash Outdoors

Fill Flash

Fill flash is very simple and easy to accomplish. You can even use a flash directly on your camera (this is one of the few times I would recommend an on-camera flash).

Fill flash is great when you are outdoors and the sun is creating harsh shadows on your subject that are unflattering. By adding some flat light directly from the camera, you can fill in these shadows a little and make them softer.

Directional Lighting

This is how you bring in more detail like I talked about above and is the type of outdoor flash I use the most.

This approach is most effective when you have a spot in the shade where the sunlight is not direct and overpowering. In the shade, you’ll have a lot of ambient light reflecting off of the environment around you which is significantly less harsh than direct sunlight but can leave your subject looking flat.

So I like to introduce a flash with a softbox at around a 45-degree angle from the camera. That means that if the subject is looking at the camera, the flash would be about 45 degrees to their right or left. You can start with it just above eye level and experiment from there.

As far as flash power for this setup, I want the look to be subtle, so if you can tell there is a flash in the image, I’ll lower it just a bit. It takes a little experimentation but the goal is to have just enough directional light to enhance the details in the image without adding too much light to the subject overall.

The effect is a photo that looks very natural but is sharper and crisper than your normal natural light image. It also will need less adjustments in post-processing as well.

Overpowering The Daylight With Your Flash

Overpowering the daylight can be a lot of fun and create some really dramatic photos.

The technique here is to light your subject enough so that you can underexpose the environment around them. The result is dark and dramatic skies or background with a lot of detail and a subject that stands out. It looks really cool for portraits shot with a wide-angle lens.

But in order to accomplish this, you need a very powerful flash. For this, I would recommend the Godox AD 600. It has all the power you need in a portable package and an affordable price compared to other strobe lights in this quality and power category. CLICK HERE to check availability on Amazon.

Technical Things You Need To Know For Using Flash Outdoors

Sync Speed

Understanding your sync speed is critical when using flash outdoors in the daylight.

Most cameras will have a maximum flash sync speed of around 1/200 or 1/250 of a second. That means that if you shoot at a faster shutter speed, the flash will not light a portion of the image. This is because of the way the shutter works in most cameras.

This poses a problem when shooting in the daylight because you may need a faster shutter speed to expose the ambient light correctly (especially if you want to shoot portraits with a shallow depth of field).

High-Speed Sync

To solve this sync speed problem, some flashes have a feature called High-Speed Sync (“HSS”) which causes the flash to fire multiple times rapidly to cover the entire frame. This will allow you to use higher shutter speeds and still use your flash.

The downside to this is that HSS puts out less light with the same amount of power. So in order to do something like overpowering the sun, you need a powerful light (like the one I mentioned above).

Using A Neutral Density Filter

If you don’t have an HSS flash, then an alternative is to use a neutral density filter (“ND Filter”) on your lens. An ND filter will block out a portion of the light coming into the camera (depending on the strength of the filter).

Using an ND filter can allow you to shoot at a wide-open aperture in daylight without having to use a very high shutter speed.

You can see my reviews of the best lens filters here. I found them to give me the best quality images with the least color changes.

Then you can add flash to your photo without having to worry about HSS. Of course, using an ND filter means you’ll still need a strong flash (there’s always some give and take in photography).

Balancing The Light

All of these techniques are used to balance the light in the way that you want.

Whether you want a natural-looking balanced image or a dramatic dark sky image, the skills are the same.

First, establish the correct exposure for your background, then add flash to your subject.

I tend to use a combination of all of these techniques when shooting portraits outdoors.

More Flash Resources

Off-Camera Flash Guide

Gear Guide

If you want to get started with flash photography and aren’t sure about what gear to choose, no problem.

Check out my guide to off camera flash gear.

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