How To Use Flash In Portrait Photography

There are lots of ways to light a person for a portrait shoot. Light can come in many forms and none so portable than the flash. There is a trick to using flash. The trick is knowing about the colour of the flash, the output, proximity to your person and shadows.

There are many flash photography techniques you can use. In order to get beautiful photos with the flash you need to understand a couple of things about the flash and how flash photography works. These key things are the following:

Intensity (Brightness): The flash is pretty intense. It shoots out a short burst of intense light. This is called “output”. The final quality of your images depends greatly on the output of the flash. In other words the more intense or bright the light is the more it dilutes colour, washes out skin tones and can create high contrast.

how to use flash in portrait photography

Direction: The direction of your flash can make or completely break your portrait photo. If you use the flash at an angle, too close, then you create a high level of contrast. For portraits this may or may not work. As a result of firing the flash front-on you may just see shadows under the person’s nose, chin and cheeks. You may see the dark shadow of their body on the wall behind them.

Outdoor flash photography: The reason why we use flash outdoors is to employ a technique called fill flash. Some people call it flash fill. Whatever you call it, just know that it has a special purpose. It only has one purpose and this is it: to fill in shadows.

Using fill flash can put the right amount of light on someone’s face so that shadows are not as present. To do this you need a soft output. You need to be standing at just the right distance away where the flash is not too bright that will diminish colour from their face. What is the right distance? The more intense the flash output is, the further away you can stand. The less intense the output the closer you can stand.

The key to using flash in portrait photography is to create soft light. Portrait photography looks great when the light is soft. This is evident in wedding photography. The last thing we want to do is fire the flash up close in a brides face. Firstly people hate the flash in their eyes, and, secondly, it can ruin the photos.

Bouncing the flash:  A great technique you can use is to swivel the flash head to the ceiling. When you take the photo a lovely burst of light from the flash will hit the ceiling at a high intensity. It will then bounce off the ceiling. The reflected flash light from the ceiling creates a lovely soft light over your portrait. It’s a much nicer effect and such an easy technique. You can really only do this if you have an external flash.


on-camera flash techniques for wedding and portrait photography

On-camera flash techniques for wedding and portrait photography: If you only have an on-camera flash then try turning your output down to the lowest setting. In other words it’s better to try and fire a soft burst of light rather than an intense burst of light. Make sure you do not stand too close to the person. Fire off a few practice photos first with something around the house to see the effects of the output and distance.

Alternatively, you can keeping photographing at a realistic distance. Instead of lowering the brightness you can attach a little portion of white paper over the flash. Position it on top of the flash and use an elastic band or tie to fasten it. This will reduce the strength of light. This will have a similar result to bouncing the flash to the ceiling. You can use ordinary white paper, a handkerchief or a little white section of cloth. Remember that after a while it could get quite hot,so you may have to alter fabric or give it a rest for a few minutes.

Keep practicing with the flash. These flash techniques are easy to do and will become second nature the more experience you get. They are a lot of fun and you can create some beautiful results with them.


flash portrait photography


About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (4)

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  1. Carole says:

    Great advice, thank you for sharing.
    One comment I have about this article is that it would have been so much more helpful if you provided the actual details for each image shown. It’s difficult to determine low/high/soft/strong/etc outputs of a flash when there are not any points of reference of a photographic situation; details of what was done to achieve the final image. If details were provided such as aperture, shutter speed, as well as flash settings, distances, and environment within your advice/tips I feel it would have would have given me a better handle on the advice you were sharing.
    However, thanks again for sharing your knowledge, I always learn something when I visit this website! ;)

  2. Carole says:

    Amy -
    After further thought, I realize this was probably a little tid-bit of info you were sharing, and it wasn’t meant to be detailed. Please disregard my previous comment and you don’t have to post it. As well as this comment (no posting). I was left a little in the dark with this article and just wanted to input a little.
    So, please regard my comments as what I thought the article should be, but I realize what you were providing was not the indepth accounting I was looking for. LOL LOL
    Thanks for all your help, it’s always appreciated.

    • Hi Carole,

      Yes it was just a little tip. For in depth stuff I will always post a photo. Glad you are enjoying the website! Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.
      Best wishes,

  3. Mackenzie says:

    HI, you have explained the things very nicely. How could we have nice blurry background with flash on the camera. Is their any tutorial about blurry backgrounds, if not, can you please post a tutorial about the same with different focal lengths lenses.

    Many thanks

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