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How to use flash for your photography: Simulate natural light


To create natural light with a flashgun

Time: One hour

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: DSLR, zoom lens, flashgun, wireless triggers, light stand, bedsheet, DIY clips/gaffer tape, variable ND filter (optional)

Missed the earlier parts of this feature?

While it’s easy to pop your flashgun on your camera’s hotshoe and rattle off some shots, the results often look unflattering – and it’s easy to tell they weren’t taken in natural light. So, in the following article, we’re going to show you how to mimic natural light with an artificial flash.

The easiest way to do this is to take an existing source of natural light, like a window or a doorway, and control the light through that space. By putting a flashgun outside the window or door, you can mimic the effect of natural light flooding into your shooting area. Diffuse it with a simple bedsheet and it can produce some of the best light around – no need for an expensive octabox. 

You can do this shoot with things you already own, so why not head down to your local café or craft workshop and ask to take some photos of the staff at work?

Step by step: Hot sheet!

1. Tuck in your sheets

Fasten your bedsheet over a window or doorway. If there’s something to clip your sheet on to, use some DIY clips to hold it in place – otherwise use your gaffer tape. Even with clips, you might find that you need to stick it down with the gaffer tape to stop it blowing away.

2. Bring the light

Put your flash on a stand, on the other side of the sheet from your subject, and set it to full power. Stand it about a metre away, aimed at the middle of the sheet. Set the flash to manual mode if you have TTL capabilities, and if it has a zoom function, set it to the widest setting.

3. Prep work

To maximise the brightness of the light and the ‘wrapping’ effect it has, place your model close to the sheet. The further away from the light source they are, the darker the scene will be. This will force you to ramp up your ISO, which can introduce noise.

Read more: How to use flash for your photography: Part 4 - Mobile macro studio

4. Carving the settings

Set your camera to manual mode for full control. Choose either automatic or flash white balance and shoot in Raw – this way you can change the white balance later if you need to. Set the widest aperture possible (f/2.8 in our case), and a shutter speed of 1/200sec at ISO 100.

The real deal

If you find someone who already works in a given field it can help to give the final image a sense of authenticity. Timothy Richards is an architectural model maker, and so he knew how to hold and manipulate his work.

5. Chisel the features

If your images are coming out overexposed, but you don’t want to change your settings, you can use a neutral density filter to block some of the light entering the lens. A variable ND filter will enable you to tweak the darkness until you get well-balanced exposures every time.

6. Scoop out the detail

Shoot using a zoom lens such as a 70-200mm. Take it to 70mm to get the whole model in and then push further in to 200mm to get details of the hands if your model is posing with intricate pieces. Here, Tim was working closely on a capital for a column.

Read more: How to use flash for your photography: Part 5 - Post-sunset portraits

With thanks to Timothy Richards and his team