How to make beautiful outdoor portraits with bare flash
As an outdoor beach and sunset portrait photographer in Oahu, Hawaii, I continually face the challenge of dealing with bright, reflective sunshine and never enough flash power. It's a constant balancing act between having enough flash power to light up my clients but also trying to create a soft and pleasing light on them as well. Since I work alone without an assistant, any modifier I try to use ends up being a sail in the ever present Hawaii tradewinds and takes my flashes for a swim in the waves (four down and counting to date!). Eventually, I finally figured out a solution that gives me the best of both needs - lots of power for outdoor direct sun portraits and yet a relatively soft look for bare direct flash.
The solution I came up with is amazingly simple and yet surprisingly effective. I simply added two flashes to one light stand, with the two flashes spaced about 10 inches apart on a bracket. This setup has multiple advantages:
1. it offers twice the flash power for bright mid day sun
2. it saves on battery consumption by sharing the flash burden between two flashes.
3. the two flashes perform like a small softbox by being a bigger light source than just one little flash.
4. recycle times are faster due to each flash only needing to work half as hard.
Light is considered soft when the light source is larger in comparison to the subject...larger light sources wrap around the subject without creating high contrasting shadows and edges. A single flash pointed directly at a subject is a light source that is smaller than the subject and thus creates harsh shadows that are generally unpleasing in portraits.
Obviously, a bare flash setup is not as ideal as, say, a big Profoto B1 and 34 inch softbox - however, it's a tiny fraction of the cost and far more mobile and quicker to set up. Whenever possible, I will happily use a softbox or umbrella to create beautiful soft light, but with 90% of my shoots outdoors in Hawaii, this double flash setup works amazingly well.
Below are some example images. The image below left was shot using one light stand set two feet to photographer's right, with double bare flashes and no diffusers or modifiers of any kind. The image below right was shot using two light stands, one flash each, with an umbrella on the left and a softbox on the right (and the umbrella kept getting blown over despite almost near calm and protected conditions!)
Click on each image to see a larger view. Personally...I actually prefer the one light stand, double bare direct flash look better! And it's certainly a darn sight faster to use and set up while on location.
I currently use and absolutely love the Adorama Flashpoint Zoom Li-on R2 TTL On-Camera Flash Speedlight and their more powerful cousin's the Flashpoint AD200's, controlled by the Flashpoint R2 Transmitter. I also use Magmod modifiers as well and love them.
Have fun and leave a comment or question in the comment section below!