Off-camera flash in daylight better than not using flash

Making Pictures With Professional Photographer John Enman

Using off-camera flash at a recent workshop.

Using off-camera flash at a recent workshop.

This past weekend I lead another workshop for photographers about using off-camera flash when photographing portraits outside in bright light.  As with past lighting workshops my goal was to help participants understand how to use flash in different environments during daylight, and gain techniques that I hoped would help them transform outdoor portraits into more than someone standing in harsh daylight and learn about how to turn it into beautiful light.

I was fortunate to have a great rural location where participants could begin in the morning photographing our model using a speedlight and a diffusion panel in a bright meadow, then move to a large, well lit, open barn with two-flash lighting using a shoot-through umbrella and softbox until lunchtime.

After a healthy lunch provided by Versatile studio we set up by a small tree covered stream, getting both our feet and our model’s feet wet. We finally finished the day photographing the model posing beside an old 1970s Cadillac in a nearby field.

In my opinion, creative outdoor portraiture should be more than just standing a willing subject in front of one’s camera in the sunlight; and using flash should be more than just filling in the shadows.

I enjoy guiding serious photographers through their first attempts to use flash as a tool to create better photos, I want them to think of the flash being more than an uncontrollable device perched on top of the camera when it’s too dark in a room to take the photo.

I have been offering off-camera flash courses since the early 1980’s, and believe they are an important segment of a photographer’s education.

In those early days I would set up a couple of rickety light stands with big flashes taped to them. At that time light stands and brackets for a flash and umbrella were a lot more expensive than they are now, so I just used black electrical tape to fix big flashes to the stands. Off-camera flash meant connecting long sync cords from the camera to the flash. And we had to check our lighting with a flash meter.

There was no LCD or histogram on the camera to check the exposure or subject’s composition, and the immediate validation of digital technology was many years in the future. My students would photograph our model and run back to their lab to process their film, and then wait for it to dry overnight and print it for the next class.

So much has changed in photography, and yet here I am 35 years later, still helping photographers learn how to use off-camera flash. The cameras are amazing with sensors that are so much better at capturing light than film was. But just as 30 years ago, serious photographers realize how much more flattering off-camera flash is on someone’s face than just harsh daylight.

Off-camera flash gives a photographer the ability to choose the best direction of light.

There are times when I am forced to photograph a person without using a flash. I think “forced” is the best word, because I will always use flash if I can, and as those that have taken my advice have learned that in most instances using flash for portrait photography indoors or out is better than not using a flash.

Those attending last weekend’s workshop began to get comfortable using flash, and I am sure agree with David Hobby, lighting guru and founder of the blog,, who wrote,  “Learning how to light is incremental, creative and fun. There is almost no math involved, nor any difficult technical know-how. In fact, good lighting is less like math and more like cooking.”

“It’s like, you taste the soup and if it needs more salt you add some salt. You’ll see that when we learn to balance a flash with the existing, ambient light.”

“Controlling harsh natural light – one of the most important things to know as a shooter is how to use bad light well. Taking hard, nasty daylight and turning it into beautiful light is actually pretty easy.”

These are my thoughts for this week. Contact me at or Stop by Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops.

I sell an interesting selection of used photographic equipment. And if you want an experienced photographer please call me at 250-371-3069.