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On Leaving My Flashes at Home for a Portrait Shoot


It started as a regular booking inquiry from a client. They wanted to book me for an engagement shoot a month before their wedding. The destination was decided (the Port of Jaffa), and the time was set (an hour before sunset).

I always make sure to coordinate clothing options with the client and remind them to make sure that the clothes are clean and ironed on the day of the shoot. The last thing you want is for the couple to arrive in mismatching clothes, clothes which don’t suit the style of the area you are shooting in or wrinkled clothes which are distracting.

Usually, I would now phone up my assistant and book him, ensuring that I can use my usual off-camera flash techniques allowing me to shoot in any lighting conditions, especially with the sun behind the subject and opposite me. This time, I decided to leave the flashes completely, not even on camera flash, and go with only available light.

I had noticed from previous shoots that it’s easy to ignore the existing light conditions when you work with flash since you can neutralize and over-power many lighting challenges that the natural lighting environment presents. But by not paying attention to the natural light, you can easily miss a great photo which would be very hard to achieve with flash lighting.

Example of my off-camera flash technique

Because this is not my usual style of photography, I asked the couple if they were ok with my shooting only available light, and their response was very positive and they said that they trust whatever I decide and we should go for it.

In retrospect, it turned out to be a great decision to ditch the lights for the shoot. The lighting was perfect an hour before sunset, and the stone walls by the port reflected warm, soft light into the couple’s faces. Also, the narrow alleys in the old port are very narrow and winding with lots of stairs, meaning that my assistant would have had to fold up any modifiers, slowing us down and making the whole shoot more cumbersome and slow. The photographs below were shot in an alley too small to even open an umbrella.

The key to getting the beautiful soft lighting on their faces is that the stone walls act like giant reflectors, bouncing the light around and creating a studio everywhere we went! You just have to keep your eyes open to see the opportunities and avoid areas where the background is too bright and will blow the highlights. Despite being in shade, the light is far from being flat due to the reflected light. The challenge is to find the perfect position to place your subjects and to pose them in a way that gets the most flattering light on their faces.

As the light began to fade, I just bumped my ISO up higher, not being afraid of introducing noise into the photo. I always use the noise reduction feature in Lightroom anyway, which is great for reducing noise even at very high ISOs, and I am not one for pixel-peeping. I had originally planned a classic sunset photo with the couple on the docks, but by the time we exited the alleyways we managed to just see the sun disappearing into the horizon.

Not ready to give up on getting a beautiful sunset photograph, I noticed a restaurant with large glass windows. The inside of the restaurant was painted orange like the sky outside and it made the perfect backdrop. I noticed how the reflections in the window were relatively dark due to the high contrast of the sky versus the shadow (reflected) side of the subjects, and after a few of shots photographing the couple in front of the window, I decided to do a silhouette, though it was really a dark reflection.

Due to the fact that it’s a reflection, the dark areas showed what is inside the restaurant on the other side of the glass (like a double-exposure).

To finish off the evening, we headed back out to the main road, where a restaurant had strung hundreds of LED lights out front. The couple sat down and rested on a bench and I captured the last few shots of the evening, this time their faces conveniently lit by a street lamp up above.

My conclusion is that like any piece of camera gear, flashes are just another tool in our kit bag. Once one gets proficient at flash, it is easy to forget to look for the treasures hidden in the available light. It is our job to seek out and discover those treasures and capture them with our camera.

About the author: Larry Brandt is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based in Jerusalem, Israel. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website and Facebook.