Everything You Need to Know About Flash for Portrait Photography [Actualizado]

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

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

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 somewhat above. Direct flash from the camera will always be the worst option. The best results will be obtained if we put an external flash located some distance to the right or left of our model and slightly higher than his head. We can also bounce the flashes to the ceiling indoors to create a diffuser effect. In this case it is very important to take into account the color of the walls and the ceiling because they will tint the photos with their color.

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

Dramatic and contrast lighting

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

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

Daytime lighting with flash or reflectors

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

Illumination with a golden reflector. On the right, an example of the light it provides

DIY, complements and accessories

There are intermediate situations such as when we cannot separate the flash from the camera 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. Let’s see some situations and what actions we can do as well as some accessories that can come in handy, I hope I don’t miss anyone 😉

Compact cameras and phones – DIY

The simplest case of flash lighting is when we take photos with our compact camera or phone. In this case we have a very small light source, almost punctual, and that is very close to the objective. On phones both lens and flash elements are touching normally.
This is the worst of the scenarios that we can have because the light that it offers us is totally frontal and punctual. This will give us portraits with harsh and rather unaesthetic shadows.

Can we fix 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 lens, we will have to settle for softening the light. The simplest method is to put any translucent surface, such as parchment paper, a few centimeters from our flash in front of the flash.

You have to be careful because the less light passes through, the 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 peeks out. Be careful to make the window so that it doesn’t cover the target’s field of view.
  3. With an elastic or adhesive tape, fix some translucent material.
  4. Do some tests. Surely you will have to make some kind of adjustment.
With a bit of ingenuity we can make a “soft box” for our tiny flash

In short, any translucent element that stands between the flash and our portrait will cause a softer light… even if only a little.

As you can see, a compact camera or a phone are not the ideal means to take a flash portrait, but that does not mean that you cannot try it and have fun while doing it.

SLR cameras and bridge cameras – Complements and accessories

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

Retractable flash of reflex cameras and bridge cameras

Here we could also place a piece of cellophane or tracing paper held with tape to soften the light.

In SLR cameras and some bridge cameras you can turn off the pre-flashes of the flash (normally in manual) and make it make a single flash at the moment of taking the shot.

With this setting we could use a photocell to remotely trigger another flash at the same time as our own. There are photocells that incorporate a hot shoe to connect the slave flash. If this is not the case, we will need this second flash to have the option of connecting by sync cable as well as by means of a hot shoe. Another option would be to have an accessory shoe with a sync 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.

This second flash can even be the main one or leave it as a filler for the background or to reinforce lateral lighting.

There are flash units that can behave as slaves and that react to the triggering of another of the same family: the external flashes of the Canon and Nikon brands can be slaved to the flashes that these cameras have integrated in their reflex models. So we can create a small portable studio without having to invest a lot of money.

Flash Slave

Right photo: Slave flash on travel tripod. You can see the sync cable plugged into its socket. We also see the translucent plastic diffuser that comes standard to soften the light. Its effect is greater if we raise the head of the flash.

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

The Nikon SB800 flash can be Master or slave.

A fairly cheap 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 by hand away from it (an assistant can do it) while you shoot the photo. Being TTL it transmits all the information from the camera to the flash and vice versa.

Coiled TTL sync cable. Transmits all functions between camera and flash.

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

Elinchrom transmitter and receiver set. An emitter 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 emitter connects to the camera’s hot shoe or X contact and emits a radio signal to activate the other flashes. The advantage of using the radio is that it is not affected by the pre-flashes that our camera makes to measure the TTL light, being able to combine the use of a mounted TTL flash and other external manual ones. Currently there are already radio equipment with TTL but with a considerably higher price.

In fashion photography, photos are usually taken with ring-shaped flashes. These have the advantage of giving a very even light from all directions without any shadows. There are accessories that allow our hot shoe flash to soften its light by creating a window (called a softbox) around it or even mimic 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

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

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