Using available light & one flash for a portrait

Earlier this year, I met a very talented budding actress by the name of Victoria Walcott who needed some headshots.

Available light–Portraiture in available light requires an awareness of locations and times. Generally speaking available light portraits have to be very static because light levels tend to be  so low. With today’s DSLR’s low light ability, a fast lens and some practice can give pleasing results. ISO 200 1/40 sec @ f 2.8 100 mm macro 2. 8 lens. See the catchlight in Victoria’s eyes  where the main light is a large window on the left.

I tend to pack a lot of gear when I work. I may not use them all, but I sure like to have them at my disposal even if it means they are in my trunk.

Force of habit from working at the newspaper. I never knew what assignment I would draw, so I had all kinds of stuff in my trunk.

For this particular shoot, I kept it simple.

Needless to say, picking a good location can save you the hassle of bringing in lots of lighting equipment.

This is what I had to work with:

  • A large window facing north
  • My grey muslin backdrop
  • 1 lightstand with reflector secured by a clamp.
  • 1 shoot-through umbrella with Canon 580EX Speedlite triggered by off-camera sync cord

If you plan to shoot with available light, consider what lens you have, the shutter speed you can hand hold and if your camera’s noise level at high ISO is acceptable.

Consider having your subject sit or lay down. It might help them relax especially if it’s your first time working with them.

Once you’re sure you have something you like, don’t stop there. That’s when should push on and try something different or even outrageous.


You’re all set up.

You might as well indulge yourself and experiment.

Even if those attempts are failures, you will learn something valuable.

Setting Up

Consider the tones and color when you set up not just what your subject is wearing.

Even the chair they’re on are potential distractions.

I draped my grey muslin over a very low coffee table and voilá, I had a flat surface for Victoria to lie on.

Jewelry is a tough call.

If in doubt, shoot some with the bling-bling and do some without.

When you’re photographing women, make sure their nails are nicely manicured or else, be prepared to choose poses that hide the nails.

Fully lit face–See a closeup of Victoria’s eye for the tell-tale crescent shape catchlight from the fill flash shot thru’ the top half of the umbrella.


Once I had a workable exposure, I made some quick pictures to see if 1/40 sec was within my ability to hand hold.

Later, when I was satisfied that I had a picture that I liked for sure, I set my flash on the floor to shoot through the top half of my umbrella by partially removing only the top black fabric.

This light modification was to see if my subject will look better with some shadow or no shadow on her face.

This is the part where you fine-tune a picture according to your taste–sort of like adding salt to taste.

Available Light

In the tighter cropped picture, I didn’t use any fill from the front at all.

I used a silvered reflector behind Victoria.

The shiny reflector kicked back enough light to give me the much needed separation from Victoria hair’s and the background.

Adding fill

To improve, you have to shoot a lot and also not be afraid to experiment.

Some people might like the main picture without the fill, some might prefer the one with the flash filling the shadows from the front.

I also a did a few others with Victoria in a different outfit.

Finally I converted another image from the same session into black and white.

In the above BW picture, notice that there are shadows on Victoria’s face?

Without changing the setup, I had Victoria move her long beautiful hair over her right shoulder so that her face was partially in shadow from the windows on the left.

I wanted to get a different feel by using the flash shooting thru’ the umbrella as my main light.

Essentially this variation changed the ratio of light striking her face– the window light on the left is more of a hair light or a rim light.

Which do you prefer? I’d love to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “Using available light & one flash for a portrait”

  1. Jessica,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I’m inclined to agree with you too as to which is the better picture.

    In answer to your question about the light from the North, it’s been my experience if I don’t want to mess with some sort of scrim or diffusion material over East or West-facing windows where direct extremely harsh sunlight shines into interiors, north-facing windows are easiest to work.

    This is especially true if there are bright white buildings outside those north windows reflecting bright but diffused light in.

    Hope that makes sense.

  2. The first is my favorite — the pose with her hands brings my eye to her face, and I like the softness of the shadows.

    Question: North light? Is that better than light from other directions?

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