lighting for on-location photo sessions – pick your battles

lighting for on-location photo sessions – pick your battles

When doing a photo session with a couple on location, I mix up the lighting as needed. With some photo sessions I may:
– shoot available light only;
– or I may decide with a photo session to use direct on-camera flash,
with some sequences available light only; or
– with some photo sessions I use off-camera flash with a softbox,
with some sequences just the available light.

Even in varying the way I may use the available light and flash, I still aim to have a consistent look to it all. My specific style has to be apparent. Or perhaps, in the way that I work, my style becomes apparent. The one way that I help make things easier for myself, and remain consistent, is that in working with the available light; or working with the available light and flash (both on-camera and off-camera) … I pick my battles. I don’t try and make *everything* work. Rather, I specifically choose where I pose a couple, or what I have as the background.  All of this in relation to the existing light and my flash.

  • camera settings for the image above:  1/250 @ f/4.5 @ 100 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

With these photos of Licet and Daniel, taken at different spots in Central Park in New York, my approach was the same – shoot against a background that is back-lit, with parts of it blowing out. Then I use off-camera flash with a softbox to bring the expose of the image up to the correct level. The softbox helps give me studio quality lighting on location, pretty much every where I place the couple.

  • camera settings for this image:  1/250 @ f/5.6 @ 400 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

By turning them against the light from the sun, I get some rim-lighting, and I let the TTL flash pick up the exposure. In this photo, parts of her arm is over-exposed, but this doesn’t bother me. It is more important for me to capture their expressions and how they interact with each other. At some level it is even more important for me to keep the flow of the photo session going, rather than micro-adjusting my settings and how they are positioned.


photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo session


With this image, the compression of the 70-200mm lens at the longest focal length, helped. There were also groups of people in this part of Central Park, but by laying down on the ground and shooting up, and using the long lens, I was able to eliminate distractions and simplify the composition. This way, it looks like they were the only people there.

The long lens and off-camera flash help to give the photographs some snap.

  • camera settings for this image:  1/250 @ f/4.0 @ 200 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

For all three preceding images, the exposure metering for the background weren’t too specific. There’s about a 2 stop leeway in terms of what would’ve looked good. So if a test shot looks good, I’m happy. I don’t drive myself nuts trying to meter for a background that has large bright areas. They can blow out.

Then I let the TTL flash take care of the exposure for the couple. TTL flash really helps in making a photo session in various locations move faster.


While looking for interesting backgrounds and good spots for the images, I am very aware of what the available light is like … and if it works, and I don’t need additional light from my flash, then even better.

Here I had Licet and Daniel under the arches at Bethesda Fountain. The available light is coming in from a perfect angle. No need to do anything to the light.

  • camera settings for this image:  1/250 @ f/4.0 @ 400 ISO … available light only.

Deeper in under the arches, the light is very even. But the light levels are much lower.

  • camera settings for this image:  1/125 @ f/3.5 @ 1000 ISO … available light only


Posing Licet and Daniel at a 90 degree angle to the direction of the available light, gave more dramatic light. But it did need subtle posing to make the most of it.

The photo above is one of the two images I selected from this sequence. The image below is one of the steps working towards this. I liked the light, but Daniel’s shoulder was blocking the light on Licet’s face. So with that pose, I quietly asked them not to move … don’t change a thing … then I told him to pull his shoulder back by an inch or two. That subtle movement opened the light on her face. Perfect.


Again, with this image on the steps, I used the longer focal length to eliminate clutter, and simplify my composition.

In posing them, I started by positioning Daniel … and then adding Licet, by having her lean against his leg. I usually start with only one person first, when I pose a couple. Then I add the second person.

In terms of lighting – simplicity again. It’s a Lastolite softbox and a speedlight. I used TTL flash.

  • camera settings for this image:  1/200 @ f/6.3 @ 800 ISO … TTL flash, off-camera

Here is the pull-back shot, and the photo without flash, just for comparison.


video tutorials to help you with your photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.


From Central Park, we explored a little bit of the Upper West Side, visiting the areas they know, as a backdrop to their photos.

The main idea here in this article is that, while I look for variety in the images I give a couple, it works in my favor if I keep it fairly simple and consistent in terms of my lighting. The simplicity helps me in working faster. The consistency helps in maintaining my style.

I’m able to keep it all quite consistent, by specifically “choosing my battles”. I don’t try to make everything work. I just make about a dozen setups work, with different angles and poses … and then move forward.



photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo session


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26 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Thanks Neil . Great articles . I want to ask about the other softbox. The Impact quickbox, looks just like the ezybox and costs less. Are you familiar with it ?

  2. 5 says

    Wow, Neil. These are great. I find reading your blogs on the actual shoot and how you did these shots including your thought process very informative.

    One question about using on camera flash outdoors for fill, do you use any type of diffuser, or do you use bare flash dialled back so it doesn’t over-power?

    Many thanks,

  3. 7Hoang Nguyen says

    Hi Neil,
    Would a shoot-thru umbrella give you the same effect as the softbox? I’m torn between umbrella and softbox and not sure when you would have a preference for an umbrella over the softbox.

    Thanks so much.

  4. 9Theresa Hart says

    Lovely, especially the last one. The shallow depth of field and bright background give the impression that they are alone in a city of millions.

    I have been thinking about soft box vs umbrella also. In reading reviews of the ezybox, seems many people are unhappy with how the whole thing is difficult to secure on a stand. Any suggestions?

    Another question: ISO choice on natural light makes perfect sense to me, but I still get confused about the effect with flash. Can you walk me through your ISO choices with the off camera flash?

  5. 11 says

    Hi Neil,
    Many thanks for your reply. I know that I read it in your book but just needed it confirming in case I misunderstood. I was thinking of getting the soft box for the on camera flash but as my wedding photography has me indoors one moment and outdoors the next changing from the soft box to the “black foamy thingie” would be time consuming. And I hope you would never consider replacing the black foamy thingie as it is so great and has made my on camera lighting a joy (unless you have to hold the camera upside-down to do a portrait and bounce the flash to your right.)

    As always many thanks for your knowledge and sharing.


  6. 14Harry says

    Neil, I love your softbox-flash technique. Could you tell me what monopod you are using with your setup? I have a heavy Manfroto that is rather unwieldy for this kind of use.

  7. 16David Deutsch says

    Great images as usual Neil.

    In the top three photos, it seems you have placed your subjects in such a way that they are being hit in their backs by either dappled or full-on sunlight. Am I correct about this? Do you find this gives better results than framing the shot similarly, but with the subjects positioned so that they are shaded from a direct blast of sunlight to the backside? I ask because I’ve found it difficult to avoid having a rim of blown highlights around subjects’ head and hair (and, depending on how the subjects are positioned, additional parts of the face) when I allow direct sunlight to hit my their backside. If I try to prevent said problem by bringing ambient exposure down (by stopping down a little and applying more flash power to get correct subject exposure), I end up with a background that is too dark. Your thoughts? Thanks for any insight you may offer on your approach to this…


  8. 18Jan Sook says

    Hi Neal,
    Thanks for a great article. I’m a bit puzzled on the photo with the couple on the stair, why was it shot at ISO 800, f/6.3? Why you didn’t choose to go with bigger aperture and lower ISO. Could you walk me through your thought process?


  9. 19 says

    Dan, an ISO setting of 800 isn’t daunting any more. The classic Canon 5D broke that barrier. Now with me using the Nikon D4, an ISO of 800 isn’t a high ISO setting any more. I can now rack up my ISO a bit, to get more depth of field, or be able to use a faster shutter speed.

    Neil vN

  10. 20 says

    This is very useful information. I am just starting to learn more about off camera flash and I will put some of these tips to use! Thanks again!

  11. 21Robert Charles says

    Dear Neil,

    This is a question about depth of field with the pictures in this shoot. How far back are that you are getting both parties in focus at f-stops of 3.5. I see you are using the 70-200 when I’m at 200mm I perhaps an inch of play, are you shooting at a shorter focal length? Are you further than I imagine?

    I was just wondering how at longer focal lengths you still seem to get everything so sharp at wider apertures, like the ones you posted in this post, while I seem to be limited to very shallow depth of fields when racked out to 200mm, even when I open to f11.
    How far back are you? where do do you place you focus points?

    Please help I’m running into serious issues when shooting more than one person at 200mm.

  12. 22 says

    Robert .. you have to keep in mind that the depth-of-field changes as you move further back from your subject.

    If you’re shooting full-length portraits with a 200mm lens, then you have more DoF than if you had worked at closer distances.

    Check a DoF calculator and see how this changes with focused distance. There are numerous DoF apps for your smart phone.

    With closer portraits, where my subjects aren’t looking directly at the camera, I normally just need to focus on my main subjects eye closest to the camera. Not everything has to be f/11 or f/16 sharp.

    Just to make sure you understand apertures and DoF … you “close down” to f/11. Not “open up” to f/11 when you come from a wide aperture.

    Neil vN

    • 23.1 says

      Most times. They obviously help with off-camera lighting. Also, an assistant frees me up to shoot, because they will carry gear.

  13. 24Jason says


    With photographing red dresses, do you ever have issues with the red channel blowing out? I experience this a lot, and I’ve seen similar complaints elsewhere.

    If you have the problem, how do you address it (in camera or in PP)?

    With the RAW converter I have, I can only try and fix it by reducing overall exposure, or by adjusting the red channel and messing up the colours. Neither is ideal.

    I don’t have Lightroom to do local adjustments.

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