Photo Shoot & Technique: Using Natural & Off Camera Lighting

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: April 29, 2010

Category: General

I get a real kick from being able to make use of ‘Off Camera’ Lighting to create a certain look and feel to an image but that being said I do still like to make use of the natural / ambient light that surrounds us.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of using just one light but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ‘one light’ has to be a flash. Part 2 of the recent photo shoot with Cameron saw us in a different location; this time a stairwell which leads to some flats above shops. Granted it’s not the most luxurious or interesting of locations but when it comes to the light available it’s a gift.

Getting Cameron to go inside the recess and sit down on the steps meant that the light hitting him was doing so from one direction as opposed to him standing outside in the open where light would be coming from all around. In effect the opening had turned into a giant softbox.

When I’m shooting using the natural/ambient light I generally take my camera out of it’s usual home of Manual and put it into Aperture Priority and I’ll then go for a wide aperture; something around the f/2.8 – f/4.0 mark. Once I’ve set my ISO which for this particular location ended up being around ISO 800, I’ll then make minor adjustments using + / – Exposure Compensation to get the desired look that I’m after.

Here are a couple of other examples using natural light from previous photo shoots:

For the photograph above, I also used a California Sunbounce Mini to punch a little more light onto the subjects face. These reflectors are a touch more expensive than the usual but the light quality that they reflect is superb. The back/hair light was provided by the opening at the top of the stairwell that you can see in the left hand side photograph.

This photograph of model, Danny Bartlett was taken under an archway in Windsor, again using natural light. Danny was positioned about 12ft back under the archway with his body angled slightly away from the opening. This meant that the natural light coming in didn’t hit him ‘full on’ but allowed for some shadows on his face and so adding alot more depth and dimension.

With regards to the photo shoot with Cameron, always looking to make the most of a location before moving on I did then bring out some ‘off camera’ lighting.
For this shot I used a single Nikon SB800 Speedlight fired into a 60″ Reflective Umbrella with Cameron facing directly towards it. To restrict how much light fell onto Cameron and onto the surrounding walls, I used a trusty clothes peg to hold the umbrella just slightly open. (I talk more about this ‘closed down umbrella’ technique in my ‘Invisible Black Backdrop Tutorial’)

This final image of Cameron was made using a single Nikon SB800 Speedlight positioned high up on a light stand close into the brick wall; zoomed to 105mm and fitted with a Honl Speed Grid to give more control and direction as to where the light fell.

Extra ‘dead space’ to the right of the picture was added later in the editing phase using my ‘Extending the Background of a Photography‘ technique in Photoshop.

So as a photographer what do you find yourself using the most? Off camera flash or the natural/ambient light?
Look in any photography magazine and you’ll see article after article about using 4 or even 5 lights to produce a certain look. That’s all well and good but how about promoting the use of natural light or just one ‘off camera’ light and seeing what can be done?

I’d love to hear to ‘hear’ your thoughts / comments and if there’s anything you want to ask or say about this post please feel free to use the comments section below.
Enjoy 🙂

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  1. Keith Hammond

    love the girl on the stairs shot, really nice. Is the final shot of Cameron done using your “invisible black background” technique ?

    • Glyn

      Hi Keith.
      Yeah the California Sunbounce Mini used in the ‘girl on the stairs’ shot is a fantastic piece of kit. You’d almost believe you were using off camera lighting because of the quality of light it reflects.
      The final shot of Cameron is indeed taken using the ‘Invisible Black Background’ technique mate.

      Cheers, Glyn

  2. DaveT

    Hi Glyn,
    I like the building block apporach you have taken- starting with ambient and then adding more light as necessary. I think the strength in what you have shown here is that you recognise lighting situations and have made something out of a fairly non descript location.

    For years I have been using on camera flash as fill , but more recently have been trying off camera flash with just one speedlight. Sometimes I hold it it one hand with camera in the other, and if lucky I get someone else to hold it for me – sort of a voice activated lightstand. My passion is travel photography, so for me this is the best approach as I don’t have loads of kit with me.

    The Sunbounce mini effect looks good – I see they have an extension arm that allows you to attach a flashgun and fire it back to the reflector – have you tried this?


    • Glyn

      @DaveT…Thanks for the comments mate; really appreciate it.
      Taking the flash and holding it in one hand is something I’ve done in the past when photographing ‘paparazzi’ style; very effective technique to add that little extra to the shot but I gotta say holding a camera like a D3 with a f/2.8 24-70mm lens in one hand for a long period of time is quite challenging 🙂

      Really ‘dig’ the Sunbounce. I have seen the extension arm you mention but haven’t bothered with it to be honest; don’t think I’d get that much use out of at the moment. That said, I certainly won’t rule it out for the future.

      Cheers, Glyn

  3. DaveT


    Is the black and white effect done with the Nik B&W plugin or straight Photoshop?


    • Glyn

      @DaveT…All my B&W conversions are done using the Nik Silver Efex Pro Plugin now.
      Absolutely love the quality it produces and the lack of noise in the sky when converting is definitely a big plus.
      Cheers, Glyn

  4. David Kelly

    Glyn, like Keith I love the girl on the stair shot – for me the catch light in the eye just gives that something extra. The top shot of Cameron is ace too. In looking at it, I was just reminded of some classic James Dean / Paul Newman photographs. For me there’s something special that just oozes from a good B/W portrait that you just don’t get from a colour shot.

    I suppose at the moment I tend to use natural light with subjects but I guess that’s because I stick to what I know and can do more readily when I need to get a shot. Hopefully though your workshop will help to extend my ‘comfort zone’ ;-). My opinion however in using extraneous light sources would be to always keep it simple – don’t overcook it. In portraiture for example you don’t need an abundance of light sources to capture the essence / character of the individual(s), and surely that’s the key thing with a good portrait shot?

    Rick Wenner did a post on his blog recently where he gave some insight into the camera kit he uses. I’d love to see a post from you giving some more detail on your the flash / lighting equipment you use (such as the Speed Grid or Sunbounce mini); You could give some insight when/ why you use it, why you like it, what you couldn’t do without / what would be your desert island kit ;-).

    Regards, David

    • Glyn

      @David…Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a big fan of using ‘off camera’ lighting but it has to look natural as opposed to looking like the subject has just gone nuclear 🙂 My own opinion is that too many people are too quick to introduce more and more lights when really they don’t know what can be done with one; very much the Zack Arias outlook and having spoken at length lately with Tim Wallace, he’s off the same mindset.

      Funny you should say Cameron’s photo reminds you of a James Dean / Paul Newman image; you’re not the first to say that so thanks; that’s a great compliment!

      Thanks for the suggestion about the blog post; I’ll definitely look at doing that in the near future. I am working on a post I’m calling ‘All the gear but no idea’ where I’m covering the use of a reflective umbrella, a Lastolite EzyBox and a Honl Speed Grid. The idea is to put a number of shots up on the blog and for readers to see if they can guess what modifier was used for each photo; the plan is to pull out a few surprises 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,
      See you soon,
      Glyn 🙂

  5. Steve Porter

    Hi Glyn, really good blog post, just shows how you can create stunning images from bog standard locations. You are showing people that you don’t need expensive studios you just need a bit of imagination, really inspirational. Totally agree with you on the magazines showing complicated lighting setups, most people own no more than 2 flashguns. Mastering the one light technique means less time setting up lights and more time shooting! Hope we can link up in the near future.

    All the best

    • Glyn

      @Steve…Thanks for the comments mate; really appreciate it.
      Great to see that you totally see the message I’m trying to push out ie ‘It ain’t about the kit’.
      I get a real buzz out of taking clients to some ‘undesirable’ locations and then producing pictures that they then later respond with ‘I can’t believe that was taken there’ and yeah it doesn’t take a mass of lights to do it either.

      Forcing yourself to use just the one light I really do think is one of the best things you can do; that and sticking to one modifier such as a Reflective/Shoot Thru umbrella and using it over and over again so that you know it’s limits. Then and only then start adding to your kit ie a softbox or maybe another light.

      linking up in the future would be superb mate; let’s get it sorted 🙂
      Speak soon, Glyn

  6. Noel

    Glyn – another set of great shots… my favourite is the gridded light on the brickwork, from above. Fantastic…

    thanks for sharing

    take care

    • Glyn

      Hey Noel,
      Thanks for looking; glad you like the shots mate.



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