Transform a Photograph Using Flash

One of the quickest and easiest ways to completely change an image and make it more memorable is to add a flash. 

I have a very simple process for how I like to work with flash. I think a lot of times, we, as photographers, make things more difficult than they need to be. So much of the time, I see photographers sharing lighting diagrams of how an image was accomplished rather than the thought process that led to the image. I like to work very fast and do it while having a conversation with my clients, so I have to keep things simple. 

To make that possible, I try to reduce the number of variables rattling around in my head each trying to demand my attention at once as much as possible. When you are juggling the exposure triangle (ISO, shutter speed, and aperture) with additional lighting and trying to hold onto all of that in your head at the same time while having an unrelated conversation, composing an image, and posing your subject, it gets really overwhelming really fast. I think that is why so many photographers never really want to take on flash photography. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that hard. By working in a sequential way, it reduces the thought processes demanding attention one at a time.

I am going to start by explaining how I compose images. I think of every image in terms of the three layers, and I start in the back: the background, the subject or midground, and the foreground. Not all images have a distinct foreground component, but they can add a lot to the story or a design element when you use it. 

Available light portrait of Connor Alexander, a native game designer.

Here is an example of a natural light image composed using my back-to-front layering method. This was shot in the same space as the flash image below. We were working at the beach in Lincoln Park in Seattle. The background was the water and the mountains. The subject was the very cool Connor Alexander. I will include a short bio of him at the end. In the foreground, we have the driftwood log that I used as a diagonal design element leading to our subject. In this image, the exposure is pretty much dictated by needing to be able to see Connor’s face. To get the full color of the sunset, Connor would have been a silhouette.

A second image of Connor Alexander taken on the same beach with the exposure set for the sunset and adding a flash.

In this next image, you can also see those same three layers in an image taken only 10 minutes later. In the background, we have the water and the sky. In the mid, we have Connor again. The foreground is a different piece of driftwood that I used to frame Connor. This time, the background exposure can be whatever I want because I am going to light Connor. 

So, I started with the exposure I want for the background. That makes Connor and the driftwood in the foreground go completely black. Once I had the background exposure set, I added the light to the subject. I threw the light up there and then took some shots to figure out how powerful to make the flash by playing with the setting on the light. By doing it this way, you only have to figure out one variable, the amount of light on the subject, which makes it far easier and less confusing. 

Once I had the lighting set, I started shooting and getting the exact composition that I wanted. In this case, it involved laying on my stomach in the sand and gravel. 

To recap and hopefully make my process easy to understand:

  1. Think in layers: background, subject, foreground.

  2. Light from back to front: background first, then subject, then the foreground if applicable.

  3. I always try to remember that I learn more from the times I screw up and get completely confused than I do the times where I nail it.

Equipment and technical details

Camera: Sony a7 III

Lens: Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2

Flash setup: MagMod MagBox softbox with focus diffuser with two flashes ganged together on the same channel in the box. Flashpoint eVOLV 200 TTL (Godox AD 200) and Flashpoint Zoom Li-ion R2 TTL (Godox V860II)

Flash trigger: Flashpoint R2 Pro Transmitter (Godox XProS)

Available light image: 1/100 s, f/2.5, ISO 50

Flash image: 1/250 s, f/4, ISO 50 with both flash units in the softbox set to approximately ¼ 

The subject 

Connor Alexander is a game designer, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and the creator of a new game called Coyote & Crow that killed it on Kickstarter with over $1,000,000 raised. Since his original goal was $18,000, he raised over 50 times his initial goal. 

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