Get a natural look from off-camera flash

I think a lot of photographers view flash as ugly and the opposite style of natural light. The truth is flash is just light you have total control over. You can make it look as natural as you’d like while having the added benefit of that control.

© Vanessa Joy

This shoot was for the cover of my upcoming book, which is about how to use off-camera flash in 32 specific scenarios. I didn’t want the cover to be an obviously flash-based image. I wanted it to emulate natural light and be an example of the enhancements a photographer can get when they know how to control light. 

© Illustration by Natalee Martinez

My goal was to create an image that was soft and colorful with a natural light look. With that in mind I decided on a large light modifier close to the model’s face. This creates beautifully soft light, much like what you see when you place a subject next to a large window. I wanted some separation from the background by using a hair light, so I chose two CTO (color temperature orange) gels to place in front of the light behind her to mimic the sun softly kissing her hair and the foliage around her. Finally, I used a long lens, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L, to compress the image, making the background pleasingly soft. 

© Vanessa Joy

If this had been a true natural light image, it wouldn’t have been as colorful on the overcast day we were faced with. Light wouldn’t be filling her eyes, which would have left her with unattractive under-eye shadows. This setup shows how off-camera flash can make a photo taken on an overcast day look like it was shot with natural, golden-hour light behind her and a reflector bouncing light back into her face. Goal accomplished. 

Vanessa Joy is the author of “The Off-Camera Flash Handbook” (February 2020).