Photography cheat sheet: flash on location

on-location flash
Using flash helps you to take control over the style and mood of your images, as well as inject extra creativity (Image credit: Future)

Studio-based photographers are usually experienced with using the best flashguns and strobes. The studio can be seen as the home of flash, as the indoor setting usually makes artificial lighting the main light source. When you’re shooting on-location, the use of flash isn’t essential, but rather a great way to create dynamic images.

Whether this is through the use of fill light to lift the shadows and balance the presence of natural and artificial illumination, or rim light to outline the subject, or even a strong backlight to create faux effects, location lighting would be uncontrollable without flash. 

A main skill you’ll need when shooting any subject on location is crafting the light ratio between natural and artificial light. While there are challenges with shooting in a studio, the main advantage is that lighting structure can be built from the ground up and be completely tailored to the subject and style you’re shooting. 

In an outdoor location, or an internal setting with different lighting sources, you need to work with lighting to either blend, overpower or make use of sunlight.

Let's take a closer look at some top location lighting techniques and help you to use flash with ease. Why not save and download our on-location flash cheat sheet at the bottom of this page to refer back to later?

What gear do you need for on-location flash?

flash kit

(Image credit: Future)
Key tip: keep it simple

Location-based photography imposes time, space and weight restrictions on your shoot. The more gear you take, the more complex the setup becomes, and the greater the requirement for assistants and lighting technicians.

One of the cornerstones of successful flash photography is the concept of simplicity over complexity. If you can function using a single light and achieve the look you want, then it is completely unnecessary to add a second or third flash to the mix. The more light sources you add to a setup, the more you have to consider lighting ratio, diffusion and direction, as well as the challenges of setting up radio-trigger frequencies to control each lighting group individually.

Radio triggers

While Infrared (IR) triggers are usually effective in controlled lighting environments such as a studio, line-of-sight flash-triggering methods are less reliable in outdoor locations, where ambient light and physical barriers such as trees, walls and high ground can interfere with the signal. The best flash triggers for your camera are good for location shooting, letting you position a speedlight away from your camera.

Battery pack

On any pro photoshoot you’re going to be taking a significant number of frames, which can use up a lot of flash battery power. This is especially true if you are using your speedlight at full power to dominate the scene. Portable battery packs (or a solar generator) are essential if you want to use strobes, as they replace the mains power, but there are speedlight alternatives. Simply plug in your strobe, continuous light or speedlight and fire your flashes uninterrupted.

Flash vs. continuous light

Using flash in locations where you need to balance artificial and ambient light requires practice. Using continuous lights – either full-size studio models or LED light panels and portable models, such as the Rotolight NEO 3 – is more streamlined. You can see the effect in real time so there are fewer calculations involved to get the light balance right. However, the light output is lower than flash, so in darker settings it can be tough to prevent motion blur. Mixing light types often blends the best characteristics of each.

Strobe vs. speedlight?

Strobes are ideal when you need power – if you’re lighting a large space, for example. There are generally a bigger range of accessories for studio lights too, so you have greater flexibility of lighting styles. Speedlights are far more portable, however, and you can pack six or seven units with less weight penalty than two strobes. They are also better for shooting subjects in motion, due to the short flash duration. 

flash on location

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Blend flash and ambient light for a natural look

Sometimes you want the light from the flash to interact with ambient sunlight in a way that doesn’t reveal our lighting setup. You can use flash to take control of the lighting structure and create a direction that fits the composition and subject. 

On a fashion shoot in the middle of the day, for example, you might want to make use of the harsh top-down light for the background, but would need to soften, shape and spread the subject light. Similarly, in a sunset landscape environmental portrait, you might need to add a fill light, especially if the subject is backlit, but would need to match the color of the flash to that of the background. 

In each of these situations the goal is to make the light from our flashes appear as if it originated within the scene itself, rather than from an artificial source. This creates an organic feel to the shot and provides a stronger narrative, since the viewer is more focused on the setting.

Download our low-light photography cheat sheet

Here's our cheat sheet, previously found in Digital Photographer magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll for later? (Image credit: Future)

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Digital Photographer

Digital Photographer is the ultimate monthly photography magazine for enthusiasts and pros in today’s digital marketplace.

Every issue readers are treated to interviews with leading expert photographers, cutting-edge imagery, practical shooting advice and the very latest high-end digital news and equipment reviews. The team includes seasoned journalists and passionate photographers such as the Editor Peter Fenech, who are well positioned to bring you authoritative reviews and tutorials on cameras, lenses, lighting, gimbals and more.

Whether you’re a part-time amateur or a full-time pro, Digital Photographer aims to challenge, motivate and inspire you to take your best shot and get the most out of your kit, whether you’re a hobbyist or a seasoned shooter. 

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