Lighting Nature

Use a little flash, an LED or even a flashlight to add dimension and interest to a nature photograph

Flash is a powerful tool. It can soften the look of harsh lighting or it can simulate the sun on a cloudy day. An external flash unit is as sophisticated as the camera it’s connected to. Flash can provide control over the amount of light, the spread of light and the angle at which that light is directed. Wireless triggering allows the flash to be off-camera, moved around a subject or hidden within a scene.

Some outdoor photographers shy away from flash because they fear they will lose the natural look. They might liken an image taken with a flash to blasting light at a subject and creating that “deer-in-the-headlights” look. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mother Nature does a great job providing light in various colors and qualities. Not all light is “sweet light,” however. Many scenes and subjects could benefit in both great and subtle ways with a little help from a flash.

Once the use of flash is mastered, it can become a formidable ally. By understanding a few principles about flash and how it works with existing light, you can dramatically improve your nature photography.


Available Light And Supplemental Light
We have no control over outdoor (available) light. While we can lighten or darken our exposures, we can’t change the brightness level of the light that’s available to us. Flash, on the other hand, is supplemental light, and we have full control over it. Flash settings can be adjusted to increase or decrease output to lighten or darken the subject without changing the camera’s exposures for the outdoor light. The advantage of utilizing both available and flash light sources for an image is that they can be managed separately. This fundamental concept allows the magic to begin.

Accurate exposure is always a concern in landscape photography. Settings can be adjusted for the flash just as they can for the camera. The most common strategy is to change the camera’s shutter speed to adjust brightness of the outdoor ambient light and to use settings on the flash or camera to change the brightness of the flash, and note that in manual flash mode, the brightness is changed with aperture or flash power level settings. The beauty here is the ability to separately lighten or darken the background with shutter speed and lighten or darken the subject by increasing or decreasing flash output or changing aperture.

Using Flash
Through the Lens (TTL) is fully automatic flash metering. Each time the shutter button is pressed halfway, the flash outputs a pre-flash to measure flash-to-subject distance. TTL can be used in any outdoor situation, and it’s especially suited for moving subjects or for flash-to-subject distance changes when the photographer is moving.

Manual flash disables the automatic metering and outputs the same amount of light each time the flash is triggered, making this setup perfect for nonmoving subjects or when flash-to-subject distance won’t change.

Electronic Through the Lens metering (E-TTL) and Intelligent Through the Lens metering (iTTL) are the equivalent of the camera’s auto-exposure mode. The camera tells the flash to fire a pre-flash, the camera measures the exposure and then decides what flash level the output needs to be to provide a correct exposure, and the camera tells the flash to fire at this output level.

In auto, the camera guesses what the exposure should be. In E-TTL or iTTL mode, the flash meters the light according to certain presumptions about subject reflectivity, which determines part of the exposure. E-TTL works with a pre-flash, just before exposure, where the camera meters the flash. The camera then will tell the flash how much power to put into the real flash, when the actual exposure occurs. As with all reflective light metering, it’s convenient and works well for many subjects, albeit not all of them.

Inside My Flash Field Kit
My flash field kit includes two flashes and supporting accessories, including a Fotodiox 6×8-inch Mini-Softbox or a Rogue FlashBender and a Rogue Grid. The grid is great for spotlighting subjects, and a kit of colored gels enables me to make subjects more colorful.

For sidelighting or backlighting with off-camera flash, I carry a mini-light stand with a hot-shoe bracket. This allows me to position one flash around the subject while the second flash remains in the hot-shoe as the fill-flash.

To trigger off-camera flash, I use radio triggers rather than the built-in infrared. My favorites include the PocketWizard TT1 and TT5 or the CowboyStudio non-TTL triggers.

For birds and wildlife, I carry a Better Beamer, which sends a narrow beam of light a great distance, extending the flash range.

Finally, the Joby GorillaPod, a flexible camera tripod, allows for placing the flash in more precarious locations, such as a tree branch or the edge of a cliff.

1) Novoflex MagicBall mounted on inverted center column,
2) CowboyStudio Gorilla C-Clamp with 5⁄8-inch stud and CowboyStudio 360 Degree Flash Shoe Holder Light Stand Mount,
3) Honl Photo Speed Grid,
4) Rogue FlashBender,

Fill And Key Light
One of the biggest challenges for nature photographers is dealing with the harsh light created by direct sun. High-contrast lighting doesn’t work for every scene, so if the sky is cloudless, there’s not much that can be done. One popular tool to soften the sun’s light is the disc diffuser, but it covers only small areas close to the camera.

Flash can cover a larger area, adding light to shadows and brightening them without overpowering the ambient light. The flash’s output levels can be adjusted to introduce just the right amount of light into the shadows and lower lighting contrast. A good starting point is a -1-stop reduction in flash output using the Flash Exposure Compensation button on the camera or flash and then fine-tuning in 1/3-stop increments, as needed.

Subjects photographed in overcast light are often missing the necessary lighting contrast that emphasizes form and texture. To restore that contrast and bring out the details, the flash can be set up as the key light, where the flash is brighter than the outdoor light. Creating a key light effect is simple and achieved by underexposing the ambient light to make the flash appear brighter without changing the flash output. Using -1/3 on the shutter speed will darken the background subtly, while -1 to -2 will be more distinct.

This ability to juggle between shutter speed and flash output provides full control over the effect created when mixing flash and ambient light. The background can be lightened or darkened, as desired, using shutter speed, and the flash’s brightness level can be adjusted to create the perfect lighting on the subject.

Modifying Flash Light
We know the sun is a point light source creating light high in contrast. Often, the shadows are hard-edged with little transition between shadows and highlights. Like the sun, the flash is also a point light source, and can create shadows and highlights resembling those of the sun. Mother Nature has a great way of softening light from the sun: clouds. When a cloud covers the sun, the size of the sun as a light source increases, and that larger light source produces a softer quality of light.

The same is true with flash. Add a light modifier, and the quality of light softens. Diffusers, mini-light boxes and reflectors are made just for that purpose—to spread out the light and soften it like a cloud over the sun. Modifiers are perfect for subjects close to the flash and camera, like flowers, insects and people.

Quality Versus Quantity Of Light
A portable flash unit can be our own mini-sun, capable of being positioned anywhere around a subject. But a flash attached to a camera is very close to the same axis as the lens. Subsequently, light emitted by the flash creates broad highlights with minimal shadows. In that position, the quantity of light output varies based on how it’s used: flash fill or flash key.

On-camera flash, while perfect in many situations, isn’t known as great quality light. Off-camera flash set up in a wireless capacity is less about quantity and more about quality of light. By positioning the flash around the subject, the flash creates highlights and shadows that shape and define the subject, just like the sun defines a landscape.

In this lighting setup, the off-camera flash and diffuser complement the natural light without overpowering it. By adding highlights and shadows where the natural light lays flat, the flash has created depth and separation from the background while also enhancing details and enriching the purple lupine color.

The creative options don’t end there! The flash can be placed far from the camera and used to selectively light a distant subject or even create light that tells stories. An illuminated tent at dusk tells the story of a warm and cozy campsite, for example. Adding a grid to a flash focuses the output into a narrow beam of light, allowing a selective spotlighting effect that draws attention to specific areas of the scene. Color gels designed to fit on flash units are perfect for adding color to any subject. Pushing creative boundaries even more, multicolored light can be applied to a subject using light-painting techniques, transforming any outdoor subject into a kaleidoscope of varied color.

To create beautiful and natural-looking photographs with a creative edge, try using flash as a tool in the same way you’d use a filter or a reflector. Flash can be applied subtly in ways few will notice, and it can be used in a more dominant and commanding fashion. Flash can improve your photography. Once you grasp the simple fundamentals, you’re free to add light to the natural world in a manner that may come to define your style as a photographer.

Other Light Sources
Charlie Borland is an expert with using flash outdoors, but that’s not the only way to add some extra illumination to a scene. Continuous light sources like the Litepanels Croma pictured at right are compact and lightweight, and they have the advantage of allowing you to see the effect as you’re setting up the shot. In a pinch, you even can use your flashlight to throw a little light into a harsh shadow or to kick up a highlight. If you don’t have a small flashlight like the Olight S15 Baton shown here, it’s definitely an addition you should make to your bag. A lot of photographers like headlamps such as the Petzl TIKKA XP because it keeps your hands free. These sorts of compact flashlights don’t have a ton of power, but they can be quite useful for adding just a touch of fill here and there.
1) Petzl TIKKA XP,
2) Litepanels Croma,
3) Olight S15 Baton,

To see more ofCharlie Borland‘s photography and to order his Outdoor Flash Photography e-book, go to