How to create soft outdoor portraits with direct flash

How to create soft outdoor portraits with direct flash

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!)

One light stand, two bare flashes

Two light stands, both with softboxes

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!

    Less is More - The Power of the Silhouette

    Less is More - The Power of the Silhouette

    Turn Off The Flash For More Powerful and Poignant Photos

    Photography is at it's best when it's conveying an emotion, an idea or a compelling drama. A powerful image tells a story that resonates with viewers. Silhouettes remove all the distractions of smiles, colors and details, leaving only two dimensional profiles that, conversely, make a for a stronger story.

    Recently I was browsing thru my countless galleries of family, couples & wedding photography when I noticed my eye constantly stopping on the silhouettes. They seem so simple, are so easy to take, that I've never quite taken them seriously. I'm always so intent on getting the right camera settings, flash exposure correct, checking for smiles, open eyes, along with a hundred other details. A silhouette, by comparison requires only metering for the sky exposure and adjusting the body parts. It was only when I noticed that most of my favorite images tend to be silhouettes that I came to see the power in the simplicity.

    Like what you see? In a follow up post, I'll share with you how to get images just like these with your own camera. Click here to see more Oahu silhouette images.

    7 tips to help your photographer get the best possible photos of your wedding day

    7 tips to help your photographer get the best possible photos of your wedding day

    How to get the best photos of your wedding day

    You've planned your big day down to the smallest detail, found a photographer with the style you like and you're excited about having gorgeous wedding photos of your own soon. What you may not realize is that YOU can make a big difference in the quality of the photos you get by helping your photographer with a few simple adjustments to your wedding day plans.

    Here in no particular order are 7 key wedding day tips to help your photographer make you look great:

    Leave enough time for photos
    Guess what? I hate to tell you this, but your wedding day won't go entirely to plan. Almost everything takes longer than expected. Makeup and hair, for example,  nearly always go over schedule. And when time gets short, the first place that often gets sacrificed is the time set aside for your romantic posed wedding photos. Family and group photos in particular always take longer than they "should," especially the more people involved. Rounding everyone up, getting them into position and then taking photo after photo to finally get one where someone is not blinking or looking over at cousin Lucy instead eats up an astonishing amount of time. 

    Solution: Buffer your schedule with extra time. Prepare for the unexpected. Leave enough time for your photos - being rushed or feeling stressed is not a good recipe for beautiful wedding portraits that you will treasure the rest of your life.

    Ask guests to put down the cameras, phone and iPads
    This is probably the number one "problem" your professional wedding photographer (and videographer) will face on your wedding day - guests armed with every imaginable electronic gadget known to man. You are paying good money for a pro wedding photographer so don't let sweet Uncle Bob ruin your photos by being in every one of your first dance photos, iPad held over his head as he stands next to you on the dance floor (yep, happened to me). A beautiful ceremony photo of your first bliss kiss is not improved by a dozen guests all sticking their phones in the air to capture the moment (yep, that happened too). Since banning all cameras and phones is seldom desired or not always practical, remind your guests of these simple rules:

    1. The Pro Photographer has priority - you are paying them for good photos.
    2. Stay out of the aisle during the ceremony
    3. Keep all cameras, phones & tablets down during the ceremony, or stand in the back.
    4. If you are taking pictures, you must always be behind or to the side of the Photographer.
    5. During posed family or group shots only look at the Photographer's camera, not cousin Lucy with her camera.

    Here is a great article on this same issue by another photographer frustrated with phone-toting guests: . Another good article with lots of images:

    Of course, if you actually want guests participating actively in your wedding, then this tip won't be so important to you. Remember: it's your wedding and you get to have it any way you want. :-)

    Ask your minister or wedding officiant to step aside
    As a wedding photographer, my job is to be in the right place at the right time, poised and ready to capture those fleeting special moments. And nothing is more frustrating to myself and the wedding couple when I've caught a set of perfect photos of their first kiss...with the minister photo bombing every single one of them. Most likely the officiant or minister is someone you just met and will likely never see again. Do you want them in your photos for life? Look at the image at the start of this article and the image below. I see good photos...that would be GREAT photos if the minister would have simply said "You may now kiss the bride" and then stepped aside. Which would you prefer?

    Think like a photographer, consider the lighting
    For a photographer, good lighting is the key to killer photos. Unfortunately, we seldom get all the light we would like and we have to make the best of it in dark, poorly lit venues. While a good wedding photographer has the flashes and skill to use them effectively, you can make our job easier - and get far better photos - by thinking like a photographer. Dimly lit, dark venue? Consider adding some sparkly lights, string lights and colored up lighting. Not only does it help lift the light in your wedding ceremony or reception venue, it adds dramatic and romantic elements to the background of your images. Do a Google Image search for "wedding string lights uplighting" to see examples. You can rent string lights and up lighting popular with events and weddings from local rental companies.

    Outdoor wedding? Steer clear of the harsh, mid day sun and schedule your ceremony nearer to the "golden hour" -  the hour before sunset - for the softest, warmest light. Unsure how a particular venue will work at certain times of day? Ask your photographer for help. They can assess the site and make recommendations.

    Slow down and savor the special moments
    Your wedding day will be over before you know it, gone in a blur. A common thing I notice is couples rushing through those sweet moments - you know, the ones we want to get the best photos of - due to feeling a little embarrassed at being "on stage" or overwhelmed with emotion. All too often the wedding kiss is a split second peck or the walk down the aisle looks more like a speed walk contest. Help your photographer get many great shots of these great moments by just slowing down a little bit and really enjoying and savoring the moment. Pause. Breathe. Look into your partner's, you're going to love those photos!

    Have an engagement session with your photographer
    Besides the benefit of having great engagement photos, an engagement session is an opportunity for you and the photographer to get to know each other. The photographer gets a chance to see your personality and you get a chance to learn to trust your photographer. In a very real way, your engagement session is your practice wedding session, where you can get acclimated and comfortable being photographed. You'll come away with a sense of trust and connection with your photographer that will show up in your wedding photos as a relaxed ease and less self-consciousness.

    Ignore The Photographer
    This might seem counter intuitive, especially in light of these tips, but the only time you need to look directly at the camera and smile is during your posed photos or when the photographer specifically asks you. During your wedding ceremony and the reception details, ignore the photographer and enjoy your wedding. Be in the moment with your friends, family and beloved. Be yourself and trust us to capture the moments as you enjoy them. Simply remember the tip above to slow down and savor the key moments to give your photographer the most time to grab great images.

    I hope you enjoyed these tips. Feel free to share this post with anyone you know who might benefit from it by clicking the share button below. Did I miss any tips you'd recommend? Send me an email!

    Additional Wedding Photography Tips
    Here are links to more great wedding photography tips from other professional photographers:

    Nicole & Jeremiah - A Valentine Wedding, Hawaiian Style

    Nicole & Jeremiah - A Valentine Wedding, Hawaiian Style

    A Valentine Wedding - Hawaii Style

    Nicole and Jeremiah had a lovely wedding ceremony and reception at the Willows Restaurant in Waikiki the day before Valentine's Day. Red and white was Nicole's predominate color theme and it really made her and her bridal party stand out wonderfully.

    It was touching to see Nicole so full of emotion as she walked up to stand with Jeremiah in front of the chapel. She may not like seeing herself like this, but this photo is definitely one of my sweet!

    Thank you, Nicole and Jeremiah for hiring me as your wedding photographer. I look forward to doing your maternity photography one of these days!  :-)


    To see more of Nicole and Jeremiah's Oahu wedding photos, click here:

    Pali Lookout Engagement Portrait Session - Kyle & Heidi

    Pali Lookout Engagement Portrait Session - Kyle & Heidi

    Pali Mountain Engagement Photos

    When Heidi first contacted me for her wedding and engagement photos, she was very clear that she wanted something a bit different. "We drive over the Pali Highway everyday and we just really love those mountains. Can we possibly do our engagement session there?"

    Well, since I love a good hike and never seem to get enough of them, I suggested the Pali Lookout hike. "But be aware," I warned her. "It's very steep and right on the edge of a cliff. You can't be afraid of heights."

    When she got all excited, I realized I may not have quite gotten my message across. But as you'll see,, it turned about to be exactly what her and her fiancée Kyle wanted. And being at least 30 years younger than me, they certainly had less trouble with it than I did!