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How to Use Off-Camera Flash to Create a Dramatic Night Portrait

The Background. A Tale of Serendipity, Luck, and Off-Camera Flash

Editors Note: An article by Bruce Clarke, my co-instructor of the new Portrait Fundamentals Course available now.

There are a lot of things happening on a wedding day. As a professional wedding photographer you have to think on your feet and be prepared to create images under tight time constraints. Sometimes you also need a bit of serendipity and luck to come together to create the perfect conditions for a magical image.

Night portrait off camera flash final

That was definitely the case on Kathryn and Amanda’s wedding day. The day started out like most wedding days with us taking photographs of the bride getting ready at her mom’s house. It was a morning filled with tears and laughter, a few mimosas, and the occasional moment of panic that somebody had forgotten something important.

On this particular day, we were also keeping a close eye on the weather. July in Edmonton is typically quite hot but along with the heat we can also get some pretty violent thunderstorms. Kathryn and Amanda had chosen Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory for their ceremony and reception so we knew that if it did end up raining, at least we’d have a nice dry indoor location to do their photographs.

More importantly, knowing that everything was going to be happening at the Muttart, I had pre-visualized some bridal portraits at sunset with the city skyline in the background. The Muttart Conservatory sits atop a hill in Edmonton’s River Valley and offers a beautiful view of the city skyline, so I was excited at the opportunity to create some bridal portraits utilizing this view.

Obviously we hoped the weather would stay nice so we could capture a great sunset shot and take advantage of the natural light and beautiful grounds outside their venue, but Mother Nature ended up having other plans.

We managed to squeeze in a few bridal portraits of the couple, and had just wrapped up family photos when the clouds rolled in and the rain started to come down, forcing us to retreat inside. We were able to create some portraits for them inside the pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory while the wind and rain continued outside for the next several hours. Their ceremony and reception proceeded without any hiccups but as the evening wore on, there was no sign of the rain letting up and our hopes of getting a nice sunset shot began to fade.

Queue luck

At around 10:15 p.m., the rain finally started to let up but by then it was getting pretty dark outside and our brides were set to leave the Muttart at 10:45 p.m. to head to a second location to continue their reception. Having shot at the Muttart before, I knew exactly where I wanted to photograph them in order to get the city skyline in the background, but getting there requires a bit of a hike up a hill and the clock was ticking. Screw it. I knew we could get it done and get a great shot of them with the city in the background. I convinced them to leave their party for five minutes so we could create an epic portrait for them. My wife Sarah and I, raced ahead and told them to meet us up on the roof in five minutes. That was all the time we had to lug our gear up a slippery hill, get set up, test our lighting, and be ready to go when our brides arrived. Then, we’d only have a few minutes with them before they needed to get back to their reception and get ready to leave for party number two.

Enter serendipity

After hours of heavy rain, the basin between the four pyramids that make up the venue was filled with water that created a gorgeous mirror in the center of the pyramids. I went up there just expecting to get a nice shot of them with the skyline in the background but when I saw the pool of water I knew that would be the extra element that would take this from a great shot to an amazing image.

Steps to create a dramatic night portrait

Step 1 – Expose for the ambient

After lugging our gear up to the top of the pyramid and seeing what we had to work with, the first step was to figure out what I wanted in my scene and the exposure for the background. I knew that I wanted to expose for the city lights and then use off-camera flash to expose the subjects.

Below is one of the test shots I took to determine my ambient exposure. I selected an aperture of f/4.5 to achieve a relatively shallow depth of field, but since I’d be focusing in the dark, I wanted to make sure I had a bit of wiggle room with my focus and didn’t want to shoot wide open at f/2.8.

Night portrait off camera flash 3

I used my in-camera meter and LCD to get the look I wanted. This was shot on a Canon 5D Mark III at ISO 1250, 1/25th of a second at f/4.5. Now if you look really closely, you might be able to spot my wife in the photograph but there was very little ambient light falling on her in the chosen location, so I knew that all of the light exposing the subjects would come from the off-camera flash. This also meant I could shoot handheld at 1/25th without worrying about motion blur on the subjects since the duration of the flash is much faster than 1/25th and as a result it would freeze them in place.

This process took about one or two minutes. That left us with three minutes to get our light set up, and dialed in before the couple would arrive.

Step 2 – Setting up the off-camera flash

The next step in the process was to set up the lighting. For this shoot we wanted to keep things simple and travel light. Our gear consisted of the following:

We set up one of the Canon Speedlites on the lightstand and mounted the 43” umbrella in front of it. The flash was positioned about three feet to the right of our subjects and one foot in front of them. Ideally I would have liked to have had the light a bit further out, at more of an angle, but the pool of water was just too deep and there wasn’t enough room on the ledge where our couple would be standing to put the light stand any further in front of them. If we’d had more time, I would have tried getting our assistant to wade out into the pool with the light and hold it, but we had to work quickly and we weren’t dressed to go swimming.

Muttart diagram

At this point I wasn’t sure what power level the flash would need to be at, but I knew we needed it to give us f/4.5 at ISO 1250 based on the exposure we determined for the ambient light. We set our flash meter to ISO 1250 at 1/25th of a second to match the settings on our camera. The flash was set to manual mode at 1/32 power to begin with, and we took a test shot.

Using the wireless control on the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlights, I was able to adjust the power on the flash and continued to take test readings using the meter until it read f/4.5. I can’t recall the exact power setting we ended up at, but it was likely somewhere around 1/32 – 1/64 power. Using a hand-held meter allowed us to get our flash set to the correct power quickly and efficiently. We could have done it without a meter by simply taking a series of test shots and evaluating the exposure on the LCD, but that might have taken up more time which we didn’t have.

Night portrait off camera flash 2

Now that the speedlight was dialed in to the right aperture, the next step was to work out the composition. I headed to the other side of the basin and framed up my image. I decided to place our subjects underneath the iconic Hotel MacDonald (the short orange building to the right of the taller Telus tower) because I knew the viewer’s eye would be drawn to that spot and I didn’t want it competing too much with our lovely brides.

I had just finished framing up my composition when our brides arrived. By this time it was closing in on 10:30 at night and I knew we’d only have a couple of minutes with them to create this shot before they had to be on their way.

We had the lighting dialed in and our camera settings selected but one of the challenges with this particular shoot was obtaining proper focus because our subjects were essentially in the dark until the flash fired. After a few failed attempts I switched over to Live View and zoomed in (on the preview) to make sure my subjects were in focus, then we were ready to start shooting.

Night portrait off camera flash 1

Of course right in the middle of shooting, a group of photographers on a night photography class showed up and set up their tripods to the left of our brides. We kindly asked them to move over so they wouldn’t end up in our final shot and after taking a few frames, we arrived at the final image you see below.

Night portrait off camera flash final


There you have it, a stunning night portrait using off-camera flash in five minutes. Looking back on the image, if we’d had more time and a second light, there are a few things I’d change to improve this image. But the clients were happy with it and that’s what is most important.

So what were the keys to pulling this shoot off under a tight timeframe?

  1. Knowing the location and having an idea of where to shoot
  2. Pre-visualizing the shot you want to create
  3. Understanding how to work with off-camera flash to achieve the look you want
  4. Being able to pull it all together quickly and efficiently

Step 4 really only comes with experience and ensuring that you know how to use your camera and flash. If we weren’t fully comfortable with our gear and didn't have a basic understanding of how to use our flash, we would have spent all of our time fumbling with gear and wouldn’t have had time to create the image.



Bruce Clarke is a wedding photographer in Edmonton, Canada. He is also a photography teacher and co-creator of the Portrait Lighting course with Darlene. You can see more of his work on his website: Moments in Digital Photography.

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