Blending Natural Light & Flash with Indoor Portraits


Michael Kormos and his wife Sophie run an award-winning NYC portrait studio specializing in child & family portrait photography. Many of their sessions take place at the homes of their NYC clients, so having the skill to illuminate these—often dark settings—requires the understanding, and control, of natural and artificial light. In this two-part series, Michael shares with us his approach as he photographs two lifestyle newborn sessions.

EQUIPMENT

Ok, so I’m a firm believer that every photographer should have a Speedlight (spelled Speedlite if you’re a Canon shooter, also simply known as “flash”), and have a basic understanding of it. Knowing where and how to use one is essential, since relying solely on natural light can oftentimes leave you in the dark (oh yes, I said it!). I also believe that flash allows a photographer to better understand light’s unique properties like spread, diffusion, falloff and color. I say this because flash allows one to control ALL of these properties, whereas natural light does not.

Now, there are already countless resources available online (as well as in print) on how to use flash. If you’re unfamiliar with flash photography completely, I would recommend you read “Nikon Creative Lighting System Field Guide”, which is an excellent starting point for beginners.

This series assumes that you have a basic understanding of flash, as I will focus more closely on its role in indoor portraits. Here’s the overview of this two-part series:

Part I: Gear + Blending Natural Light & Flash

Part II: Using Only Flash to Light-Up a Room, Naturally (we’ll cover this topic in our next blog post)

Nikon Speedlight

Here are some basic items you’ll need:

  • Flash + flash trigger
  • Flash clamp (fraction of the size and weight of a full light stand; can clamp onto a household chair, door, and most furniture)
  • A-clamp (has about a million and one uses; mostly, you’ll need it for just that one)

Here are some items you may want to consider:

  • Stand + Umbrella (optional)

1.   So What Flash Should I Get?

Yes, the marketplace is littered with flash units ranging widely in price and offering many bells and whistles, many of which a portrait photographer rarely needs. I’ve been using Nikon SB-900 Speedlights (now discontinued) for the last six years, and while these tend to be on the upper-end of Nikon’s product lineup, you’ll get a similar performance from the smaller and more affordable SB-700. Canon shooters will find the 430EX II to be just as capable. There are also many alternatives offered by third-party brands. I personally prefer Nikon Speedlights, because they integrate seamlessly with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS), which allows you to control (wirelessly) everything from your camera.

2.   Triggering

For triggering, I use Nikon’s SU-800 Commander unit. It’s a fairly small little gadget that fits right into your camera’s hot shoe, and lets you wirelessly trigger and control your Speedlights. I find this especially useful because I can adjust the power of my Speedlights without moving an inch. Canon offers a similar system for their Speedlites, and there are third-party options available as well (PocketWizard, RadioPopper).

Justin Clamp

3.   Stands, Umbrellas, Brackets…

Hey guess what, in most cases you won’t really need any of these! For most indoor portrait sessions, I only use ONE Speedlight. A cute little thing called Justin Clamp lets you attach your flash, and clip it onto a chair, or door (or a piece of furniture). It has rubber pads to ensure nothing gets scratched, and gives you the flexibility to position your flash pretty much anywhere. Who needs a light stand to trip on when you’ve got this ingenious little clamp?

Lastly, the final item on my list is the generic A-clamp. As we’ll discuss in Parts II and III, this is something you don’t want to be caught without.

4.   My Kit

While the kit above is the bare-bones version, I do bring with me a light stand and an umbrella. My preference is to bounce my flash off a white wall, but if the wall isn’t white (or worse yet, has a large mirror), you’ll want a white sheet or an umbrella to take its place. Remember, we’ll be creating the illusion of window light, and for that only a large white surface will do!
Manfrotto makes an awesome light stand (model 5001) that weighs next to nothing, and folds-up to only 19″ long.  As for the umbrella, a medium white one like this will do.

Just for the record: The above links aren’t paid-for by Amazon or B&H. I simply offer them for easy reference.

Putting It All to Use

With this minimal kit, which easily fits in a shoulder bag and will cost you no more than the average lens, you’ll have the flexibility of bringing “window light” with you to any home. So let’s take a look of how we can achieve that!

BLENDING NATURAL LIGHT & FLASH

Using flash for indoor portraits

So, do you really need flash?

In many cases, no. Natural light is often plentiful, as long as there are enough windows (and provided it’s not a particularly cloudy day). But what about those times when the room has only a single tiny window, or worse yet, NONE at all? As a professional photographer, your clients count on you to provide them with the same quality of images as they see on your website. No excuses!

Here are a few guidelines that will help you decide whether the use of flash for portraits is necessary in a given room:

  • Does your exposure call for a very high ISO? Depending on your camera model, anything over ISO 3200 for pro models (and ISO 1600 for the entry models) should be frowned upon. Sure there are countless noise-removal plug-ins, and tricks to recover some of the lost detail. But a clean image is a clean image, period. Noise is ugly and yields a great loss of detail, namely in skin and hair.
  • Is the available light coming from all the wrong places? A skylight is often no good (think dark shadows under the eyes). What about a window directly behind you? Shooting from the same angle as the direction of light yields featureless, 2-dimensional images. Your ideal light source should come from the side of the subject, or a 45-degree angle to your left or right.

So let’s look at an example: The Bedroom. In this room, my shooting arc is focused at the bed – head-on. A large window behind your subject creates a sense of depth and provides beautiful backlight that adds a nice accent. Here is Sophie, letting me get some light readings (ISO 800, 1/250 sec @ f/1.4)

Natural light only

The problems with this setting

For one, it was a cloudy day, so the light pouring into the room was dim as it was. I would have needed ISO 6400+ to expose her face correctly. Two, there was no other window, so the subject would be entirely back-lit. This means the back-light would’ve bounced off the walls in every direction, absorbing their color, and ultimately yielding a featureless, high-noise image with a brown color cast. Not exactly a professional result.

So let’s create a window where we need it!

Create window using flash

One Speedlight that could

I’d normally just bounce my speedlight off a white wall to create the illusion of big, soft window light, but the walls here were brown, so that was a no-no. Using the equipment we’ve discussed earlier in this article, I’ve put up my white umbrella and a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight to create the illusion of another window. As you can see, I’ve positioned it at a 45-degree angle relative to the subject.

The most important thing to remember is M – for Manual: While many cameras have automated flash functions like TTL, TTL-BL, etc., I believe that the best way to understand flash is with full manual control. So set your exposure manually, and do the same with your flash. Your results will be much more predicable and consistent. I promise.

Balancing it all out

A good starting point is the original photo (natural light only, above). As you can see, I’ve set my exposure so that natural light provides just enough illumination. The window isn’t completely blown-out, and it plays nicely with the two side lamps, which are spilling minimal tungsten color on the subject.  At this point I wasn’t concerned about exposing for the face (that’s where flash comes in).

Luckily, flash is daylight-balanced (unlike those tungsten side lamps), so we needn’t worry about one looking warmer or cooler than the other. 

Using my Nikon SU-800 commander, I fired the flash at 1/16 power. My exposure was already set at ISO 800 and 1/250 sec @ f/1.4, and the flash provided all the key light that we needed. Here is the end result again:

Natural light plus speedlight

The easy part is made in-part by the SU-800 Commander. If the flash was set too high, I can lower its power with a click of a button. This allows me to focus more on the subject instead of running back and forth adjusting my flash manually. It also makes the mom and dad more comfortable, as my focus is on them and not the gear.

Where to put the speedlight?

A good rule of thumb is, at a 45-degree angle relative to your subject, and never-ever mount your speedlight onto your camera directly (PLEASE!).

Practice makes perfect

I urge you to practice at indoor settings, maybe even your own home. Getting the hang of using off-camera-flash, or OCF if you want to get fancy, can seem like a daunting task. Though as you’ve seen in our example, getting natural light to mingle with flash is in fact not all that hard!

Today we’ve learned about what basic equipment one needs to create natural window light. We’ve further explored the approach I use in identifying proper shooting angles, setting correct exposure based off ambient light only, and supplementing it with a key light – in this case a single Speedlight, to provide a balanced lighting solution that yields a natural lifestyle portrait.

Stay tuned for our next blog post with MpixPro, in which we’ll approach a setting with no ambient light at all, and turn it into a beautifully lit bedroom.

Follow Michael and Sophie on their blog, Instagram and Facebook.

8 Responses to “Blending Natural Light & Flash with Indoor Portraits”

  1. Darla Beller says:

    Thanks for this great little article. I have been scared to death of flash for far too long, but have wanted to expand my skills and knowledge with speedlites (Canon user:). I have played with flash some, so I am not completely ignorant, but this simplified it and gives me a great place to start. Thanks so much!

  2. Kiki Hutchens says:

    Thank you!!!
    I love your simple approach to great indoor portrait lighting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so afraid of the possibity of poor lighting when I get to a shoot . I used an large soft box in the past with cords which was so cumbersome. I would avoid any indoor shoots without plenty of adequate natural light. Impossible a great deal of time.
    This helps, love the portability .
    Kiki

  3. Thanks for an informative, practical approach to do an easy pose portrait in the convenience of someone’s home. Well thought out and I am going to try this out using my one flash with the umbrella.

  4. tanya says:

    thank you for this! I have played around with flash for awhile, but it takes me forever to get the light just right. I love how you explain things in easy terms. also love the links for gear- awesome!

  5. Meghan says:

    This was a great article about using off camera flash. Thank you so much for writing about this topic. I have a quick question. I currently shoot with one-two Nikon SB 900 speed lights and I have been using the pop up flash on my camera to trigger them remotely. I have been thinking about purchasing a SU-800 Commander Unit because I think it would look more professional than using the pop up flash to trigger my speed lights but beyond that why do you suggest I use a commander unit?

  6. Marisela Mayor says:

    Simple and informative. Thank you!

  7. Hi Meghan!
    For one, my Nikon D4 doesn’t have a pop-up flash, so I generally can’t trigger my Speedlights with it. (A little oversight for a $6k camera!). However, I find the SU-800 more efficient in that its LCD is always reading out my current power levels for the various groups of Speedlights that I’m using. i.e. Group A is firing at 1/64 power, Group B is firing at 1/8 power, etc. You can adjust these settings through your camera’s menu, true, but the process takes a few button-clicks every time. I guarantee you, once you try the SU-800, you’ll forget about using your camera as the commander 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  8. […] portraits. For those of you who have missed our previous e-mail/blog post, you may read it here: Blending Natural Light & Flash with Indoor Portraits. TURNING NIGHT INTO […]