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[2-Light Technique] Achieving Edgy Outdoor Images in Broad Daylight

Natural lighting has its benefits, but it offers a lot less control compared to flash photography, especially when you take your flashes off-camera. Commercial action photographer Mark Teo shares one of his favourite setups, which not only captures his subject in edgy, dramatic style but also makes them stand out against a busy background. Try it the next time you shoot an environmental portrait of someone unconventional. (Reported by: Mark Teo)

EOS R5 + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ f/2, 1/800 sec, ISO 100
With two off-camera Speedlite EL-1 units


A way to add drama to outdoor shots

If the conditions are right and you read the light well enough, you can achieve decent, natural-looking results from natural light (or even impressive results like this high-key image with interesting shadows and this dramatic environmental portrait). However, as the natural light isn't something that you can easily control, it might not give you the look that you want.

You probably are already familiar with the concept of using a Speedlite as a fill light to ensure proper exposure on your subject in backlight. Here, I share how you can use them off-camera to reshape light and achieve an edgy, masculine look, even if you are shooting outdoors.

What if: The conventional look

This shoot took place on a sunny late afternoon, with the sun shining from the right of the camera. I first tried shooting with no flash, and then with a bare on-camera flash. Both images were shot at f.2, 1/800 sec, ISO 100—the same as the main picture. High-speed sync allowed me to use the f/2.0 maximum aperture to blur out the background.

No flash

With no flash, the hat casts a shadow on the subject’s face. I also felt that the lighting looked a bit flat. The background is rather bright, which could be a little distracting.

Fill flash (bare flash, head on)

The on-camera flash brightens the subject’s face. It also darkens the background. This is a decent shot, but it just didn’t have the edgy look that I wanted.


Shooting procedure

Equipment used
- 2 Speedlites on light stands
- Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT on-camera to trigger the Speedlites

Step 1: Set up the first light

You can say that this is a variation of split lighting. The first light should light only about half of the subject’s face, so I placed it to the side, about 90 degrees to the subject. 

Step 2: Set up the second light

The second light is an edge light that highlights and gives definition to the side of the subject’s face, which was cast in shadow. I angled it so that some of the light falls behind the subject, creating rim lighting. 

The rim lighting provides the slight halo effect visible in the edges of the subject’s cap and left ear.

Know this: Don’t use this if you want the smooth skin look!

This look uses hard lighting with a bare flash, so the contrast is quite strong. It makes the face look more angular, good for achieving a tough, masculine look. However, it is not very flattering for less-than-perfect skin, so use it with discretion.

Need smooth-skin lighting? Check out this article:
3 Flattering Techniques to Learn from Professional Models

Step 3: Set your camera settings; turn on high-speed sync

In flash photography, your shutter speed controls the ambient light. For this shot, I wanted a shallow depth of field to simplify the background, so I used the maximum aperture. I also wanted the background to be a bit darker. As we were shooting in daylight and my ISO speed was already at ISO 100, a rather fast shutter speed was necessary. It needed to be faster than the flash sync speed, so I turned on high-speed sync on the flash.

Know this: Using high-speed sync will reduce the guide number

That’s due to the way high-speed sync works. Take this into account when you set your flash power. Depending on your shooting conditions, you might also want to move the lights nearer to the subject.

The flash sync speed is determined by how fast the shutter curtain moves. It is the fastest shutter speed where a single flash can be fired when the shutter curtains are fully open. Any faster than this, and the image sensor will not be fully exposed to the flash.

In high-speed sync mode, a series of weaker continuous flashes is fired rapidly throughout the entire exposure, from the time the first curtain opens to when the second curtain closes, ensuring that the image is more evenly exposed. As this means that the light is emitted over a longer duration, the resulting flash light is weaker than a single flash emission at the same flash power.


Step 4: Take a test shot and adjust to taste

Even for portrait shots like this, the subject doesn’t have to be too still. We talk and banter and they may move around a little, and we get more natural expressions in the process. Once I’ve set the lights, I prefer not to touch them as it disrupts the flow of the shoot. I also set the flash zoom angle as wide as possible to leave some room for error.

Pro tips

1. Make sure that the shadows don’t hide the eyes
If the shadows are too dark, they will detract from the facial expression. Make sure that you can at least see the whites of the eye. To reduce the shadows, diffuse the light by either using a modifier or bouncing the flash.

2. Interact with your subjects face to face: use the Vari-angle monitor

It’s easier to interact with subjects when your face isn’t hidden by the camera! Nowadays, I hardly ever use the viewfinder to shoot—I make use of the Vari-angle rear monitor and shoot in Live View instead. It helps that the EOS R system has reliable subject detection and tracking.


Bonus technique: Need a headshot? Just move the edge light towards the camera

EOS R5 + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ f/2.8, 1/400 sec, ISO 100
With two off-camera Speedlite EL-1 units

For this headshot, I moved the light on the camera right closer to the camera position so that the right side of the subject’s face was more evenly lit. This directional lighting setup creates more dimension than possible with simple head-on lighting. I kept the background dark to match the mood.

The light on camera right also creates a catchlight in the subject’s eye. If you need bigger catchlights, use a modifier over the light source so that it creates a bigger reflection in the eye.

Need to brush up on Speedlite basics? Check out these articles:
Start Flash Photography in 9 Steps! 
Beyond Shutter Speed: Using Flash Duration to Freeze Motion
[2-Light Technique] A Simple Way to Light Curved Reflective Objects

Learn more about lighting setups and flash techniques in:
[Flash Technique] How to Achieve Dramatic Colours in Backlight
[Flash Technique] Creating a Pop Art-inspired Night Portrait
Cosplay Photography Techniques (3): Examples of Different Lighting Setups
How to Capture Raindrops to Create Surreal-looking Portraits


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Mark Teo

Mark Teo

Honing his craft with a balance of commissioned content and personal pursuits, Mark examines life through unguarded portraiture and suspended moments. With an abiding interest in adventure sports and urban subcultures, he has photographed MMA fighters, B-Boys, pole dancers, pro skaters, Motocross riders and Formula 1 champions to name but a few. A Semi Finalist in Red Bull’s Prestigious Illume Competition, Mark shares their uncompromised dynamism and raw energy.

His portfolio spans a plethora of clients from commercial work for Nike and Puma to editorial features for the likes of Discovery Channel Magazine, FHM Upgrade and SMILE Magazine for Cebu Pacific Airlines.

Besides being invited to judge Canon’s annual PhotoMarathon in 2013, Mark’s shoots have seen him documenting the beauty of the people and landscape in a self-driven Tuk Tuk across India, to shooting nomadic horse riders in Tibet for Red Bull and most recently documenting a road trip on the back of a Vespa across Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.