Do I need an External Flash for Outdoor Photography?

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Like most photographers, I’m obsessed with light – whether it’s from the sun, the moon, or the stars. But first, I’d want to explain why I’m also smitten with the tiny little flash in my camera bag. An external flash has become an essential tool in my creative process. It’s nice to know that I can always produce light when I need it, and an external flash enables me to create outdoor pictures that reflect my creative vision regardless of the available natural light.

Using an external flash outside can be readily integrated into your workflow with minimal bother and equipment. This simple instrument can accomplish the impossible and is, in my opinion, the most potent asset you may have in your arsenal.

When should you use flash in outdoor portrait photography?

When using flash outdoors, it is important to consider the quality of light vs the quantity of light. There may be a lot of light (quantity), but it’s not the proper kind of light or it’s not coming from the right direction. Here are some examples of circumstances where you might wish to add some external flash:

  • If your subject is backlit, use a flash.
  • On a cloudy day, the light from above causes black eye sockets.
  • If the subject is shaded and the background is well-lit

Of course, there will be occasions when you need to employ flash, but if you start with those, you’ll have an excellent base.


There appears to be a widespread misunderstanding regarding what light quality entails. You may have heard the terms “hard light” and “soft light” referenced in connection with this topic. The quality of light is determined by one and only one factor. The only factors influencing light quality are the relative size of the light source and its distance from the subject. Let me repeat that!

The only factor influencing light quality is the relative magnitude of the light source.

When the light source is modest, the illumination is difficult. Hard light is distinguished by strong shadows, significant contrast, and an abundance of texture. All of these are things that most individuals do not want when having their portraits made. Small light sources include the built-in flash on your camera, an external flash or Speedlight (Speedlite if you’re Canon), a bare light bulb, and the sun. The crisp edges of the shadow and the contrast exhibited in the image below indicate that it is a harsh light source (the sun). You can also use an action camera flashlight with the camera for best results.

Soft light is produced by a big light source and is distinguished by low contrast, soft or nearly no shadows, and texture loss. In a portrait, everything looks nice on a person’s face! Soft light sources include the sky on a cloudy day, a huge reflector such as a 42′′ disc, large studio softboxes (thus the name) such as a 2436′′ or 3648′′, and the wall or ceiling if you bounce your Speedlight off of them.


Light modifiers are devices that either increase or soften the light. You can either spend a lot of money on a number of fancy pricey ones, or you can go incredibly plain and cheap. I’ll give you a couple of options for each, and you can choose what works best for you and your budget. I’ll also provide links to a few that I own or would recommend to you.

Low-cost alternatives:

  • A huge white cardboard or foam board piece. The disadvantage is that it cannot be rolled up into a tidy small bundle for transportation.
  • A huge, low-cost foldable reflector. Get the biggest 5-in-one you can find so you have silver, gold, white, black, and translucent options. If you can find it, it’s 42″ or 52″. Depending on the brand, they will cost between $30 to $150.
  • A simple white umbrella or a three-in-one umbrella. I recommend 42′′ or larger. A clamp or gadget to hold the flash and the umbrella together, as well as a small light stand or someone to hold it for you, are also required.

Fancier, more expensive alternatives:

  • Softboxes that are large (these often require multiple speed lights inside one so read the information carefully before you buy).
  • Large onto boxes, which are similar to softboxes but have more sides.
  • Lights for beauty dishes (I have one of the Fireflies below and love it).

Do I need an External Flash for Outdoor Photography?

Due to the huge restrictions of the in-built flash, which can represent a bottleneck to their otherwise superb image output quality, higher-grade cameras don’t even have built-in flashes. In low light (and even in strong light where fill-flash is required), an external flash allows improved control over the lighting and exposure of the subject. This is why.


This is more clear than the other reasons, but it still tops the list. With the brightness of the built-in flash, it becomes extremely difficult to illuminate wide-angle images, and the margins of the image remain too dark. External flash provides a considerably wider range of illumination. Furthermore, an external flash has its own set of batteries, allowing it to recycle faster and avoid draining the camera’s batteries.

It is critical to realise that the effective distance of any flash is determined by the aperture and ISO. At f/8 and ISO 100, for example, the built-in flash will be effective only if the subject is within around five feet of the camera. Indirectly, increasing the range can be accomplished by lowering the F-stop and/or utilising a higher ISO level. However, both strategies have a cost:

Less depth-of-field means more digital noise.

While a decent external flash unit has around 15 times the power of a built-in unit, it also has approximately four times the effective distance (some math is involved here). Power is especially important for bouncing flash and fill-flash in bright outdoor circumstances.


One of the most critical factors affecting shot quality is the ability to bounce light from the flash onto the subject via ceilings, walls, or other objects. Because you cannot change the direction of the built-in flash, the images will be harsh and snapshot-like. A well-bounced light from an adjustable external flash head can make a nice shot that does not even appear to have utilised flash. The technique results in softer shadows, a brighter background, and more natural-looking outcomes. Of course, a bright flash is required to efficiently bounce the light.


When you can use post-processing programmes like Photoshop to erase red eye caused by light reflecting off the retina in the back of the eye with dilated pupils, it’s best to take precautions while taking the photo. An external flash works well for this. The closer the flash is to the lens, the more likely it is that the light from the flash will bounce directly from the retina into the lens.

The distance between the lens and the eyes also plays a role. The bottom line is that the greater the distance between the flash and the lens, the farther away the camera may be set from the human subjects without inducing red eyes. Because you can’t truly regulate the position of the in-built flash in relation to the lens, an external flash is a great solution.


You may use cordless flash sets to create fascinating studio-like lighting sources from optimal angles. Some flashes contain a focus assist light, which aids the camera’s autofocus system’s performance in low-light circumstances. You can also use FP Flash (high-speed sync) to flash while maintaining high shutter speeds. If you’re using fill flash outside but want to use a wide aperture to blur the backdrop, you’ll need a faster shutter speed than the sync speed. When it comes to professional shooting, these minor improvements can make a significant difference.

Which Flash Should I Buy?

 This is determined by compatibility factors as well as power requirements. If you have a Canon EOS series DSLR, the 600EX-RT or 580EX is the best options. If not, 430EX is the next best option (I have this model). If you have a Nikon DSLR, the SB600 is your best bet (reasonably priced). Other options, such as Sigma and Metz flash units, are available for both Canon and Nikon DSLRs.


Arnold Bloom

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