Part 2: How to Use Flash

Michael Kormos, along with 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.

This series assumes that you have a basic understanding of flash, as I will focus more closely on its role in indoor 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.


Last week we talked about one of the most common lighting problems faced by on-location portrait photographers: How to work with limited natural light at indoor settings and supplement it with flash for a seamless end-result.

Today we’re going to take that a step further, and tackle the extreme case of shooting in a windowless room. This may not be a common occurrence, but as a professional photographer, people will expect you to deliver beautiful portraits no matter what the lighting conditions.


As you can see in the example above, this apartment was dark.  I mean DARK. It was located at the basement level of a NYC brownstone, and while some of the other rooms in this home had narrow windows leading to the sidewalk, only the bedroom was fully finished. It was important for this client that we capture their family portraits in this room. It was up to me to make it happen.

A room like this presents numerous challenges. Not only does it lack any natural light whatsoever, its walls are painted with brown colors, which limits our ability to bounce flash off the wall directly.

So let us turn night into day.

 – Start with lamps – any lamps:  I’m a big fan of depth and ambiance. In fact, one of the most characteristic elements you’ll find in my indoor portraits is that I always try to use lamps already present to help fill the scene. Tungsten (especially when dimmed) gives off a deep amber light. This contrasts beautifully with skin tones, and the cooler daylight, which will come from our speedlights. Bedside lamps are my favorite. As you can see in the image above, I start my exposure by turning on those lamps, and making sure they’re not blown out (overexposed), and that they’re not throwing too much light onto the person.  We don’t want to mix tungsten with daylight when illuminating the face.

 – Available lighting?  A lot of times our clients will offer to turn-on all the lights in a room. People generally think that light – any light – is good for photography. Unfortunately, most indoor lighting is not diffused. This means that you’re often going to get numerous sharp sources of light, which results in harsh shadows, high contrast, and – to put it bluntly – just a flat-out lighting disaster. In this room, as you can see below, most lighting is recessed, which would translate to about a dozen different shadows going off in all directions. We’ll stick with the table lamps then.


 – Improvise

I am NOT a big fan of traveling heavy, even though Sophie and I drive to all of our newborn sessions. The last thing I want to do is turn our clients’ home into a movie set. A home with a newborn baby is a quiet, peaceful place, and we want to capture those uninhibited emotions that are running high in those first few days.  Rigging-up softboxes, plugging-in strobes – these mechanical contraptions take the focus away from what’s important – your client’s comfort. I limit myself to a single stand with a speedlight & umbrella. However, in this particular situation, a single light won’t do.

When I need a big, diffused source of light, I’ll often ask our client for a white sheet (I guarantee you, everyone has a white sheet). I have found that our clients are always happy to help.  Here I’ve clamped the sheet onto the brown curtain, and voila! I just got myself a 6×6 foot “natural light window”. As you can see, I put my speedlight on the ottoman, and bounce it off the sheet. This gives off big, soft daylight.

The problems with this setting.

By positioning my key light (you know, the sheet!) on the right side of the bed, I’ve ensured good definition and depth when shooting the bed head-on. Your key light should always come from the side, or a 45-degree angle relative to the subject.

But how do we minimize shadows on the left side of the face? There is no light on the left side of this room. Worse yet, what if the subject turns their head to the left?

In a studio environment, every pose can be crafted, lights can be moved around, and every little detail perfected. But during a lifestyle in-home session, lighting needs to accommodate a wide range of poses and angles.  I can’t simply tell a person (only look this way, and not that way!)

This is where a fill light comes in. And today, that’s where we’ll place our umbrella with the second speedlight:


One Speedlight, one umbrella.

Above you’re looking at the left side of the room. This is our fill light, and I’ve positioned it at a more comfortable 45-degree angle relative to the bed.

With my Nikon SU-800 Commander, I can control the power of both speedlights independently, and trigger them wirelessly. This gives me full control without having to run back and forth and fiddle with the controls on thespeedlights themselves.

A fill-light is generally 1 to 2 stops lower in power compared to the key light, depending on the contrast desired.

With our fill light in place, we have a comfortable shooting arc, where our subject can sit or lay on the bed, and freely move their head around without us having to worry about lighting.


The end result.

Well, there you have it!  Nice and simple, and the client was – needless to say – impressed with how natural the light looked. The following 30 minutes were spent on intimate portraits of Mommy & Daddy and their beautiful newborn girl.

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, keeping things simple, and improvising with existing household items can bring light into any room, no matter how dark.

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

7 Responses to “Part 2: How to Use Flash”

  1. Tara says:

    Great article, and very useful ideas. Thank you for sharing. I would not have thought to use a sheet.

  2. Liz says:

    Great detailed article! I love it when I see other pro photographers improvising. It’s not always about buying the most expensive gear. Do you use a SB-700 with your SU-800? I’m curious as I have never been able to productively use my SB-700 remotely. Thanks again 🙂

  3. fabulous post, thank you for all the great info! i run into this kind of nightmare all the time, it doesn’t seem so daunting anymore!

  4. tpinto says:

    Well done! Such a simple solution. Great result. Thanks

  5. Julie says:

    Thank you for the tips. Great post.

  6. Kami Myles says:

    Thank you for taking something that has confused for way to long and making it simple. I am glad I stopped to take the time an read through this. Thanks again.

  7. Lanie says:

    Great article

    Thank you