simple on-location lighting techniques – reflector & flash

Chuck Arlund is a Fashion photographer based in Nashville whose work constantly impresses me.  As a friend, I occasionally have the privilege of getting to interrogate him on his technique.  What surprises me every time then, is the simplicity of his lighting.  His setups are rarely complex, but always effective.  I feel quite fortunate that he agreed to a guest spot this week to explain more about his approach to on-location lighting. (Chuck also offers workshops and mentoring sessions.)

simple and effective on-location lighting techniques

a guest post by Chuck Arlund

Let’s talk about 2 lighting techniques I use a lot:
– a barebulb flashgun very close to subject,
– a small reflector


using a bare flashgun / light-stick

I like to get my flashgun very close to the subject – about 2 feet.
This is what I use – a monopod and a flash being triggered by Pocket wizards or Radio poppers, if needed.

My 4 year old son who was my assistant for the day.

Here is a sequence showing my thought process for using flash.

The first thing I do is determine what my overall exposure will be.
Since I am using flash on a sunny day I will set my ISO to 100.
My sync speed is 1/200
So the only thing I need to determine is my Aperture.
If I was concerned with my depth of field I would use something like Radio Poppers to give me a faster sync speed that would allow me to use a shallower depth of field.

The reason for this is the sun is so bright … and to only be able to use my max sync speed of 1/200  means my aperture is usually something like f-13

The trend these days is to shoot with soft lighting.
I like my fashion styled images to be sharp and edgy looking.
A greater depth of field will give me that, so I am usually ok with a small aperture.

Here is the sequence.
First, get the exposure you want. In this image I wanted the shadows to be dark.

This image illustrates what the subject looks like within the exposure without added flash.

Now the fun part.
Dial in a power level in your flash and find the correct illumination of the subject.
What is the correct illumination? Well what ever you want. For me it is just slightly brighter.
I usually start with 1/8 power on my flash set to Manual.
I find I do not need to use TTL very much for the type of photoshoots that I do.

So let’s look at the process.
1. determine what your background exposure will be,
2. determine the power level of your flash to add to the background exposure,
3. determine the position of the light. I like to usually do from the front.
I feel front lighting with just a slight position to left or right is very flattering.
Look at the shadow under the nose for position.

Here is another photo taken with the bare flash.


using a small reflector

What I love about the small reflector is it is sort of focus-able, unlike the large reflectors. It allows me to get much tighter light placement.

Here I am using a small reflector.

When shooting digital I found that using a neutral color. Silver or white gives me the best results. It is hard to get rid of warmth in an image so I do not shoot with any kind of gold. If I need to add warmth it is very easy to do but for some reason getting rid of it makes skin look strange.

Here are some images I just shot using a small reflector.

Here face is in complete shadow with the bright sun acting as a kicker off her right shoulder.
The camera’s meter reading here was perfect. There was enough black and white to give me a consistent Matrix / Evaluative reading.

Here are a couple with the reflector providing more fill light unlike the ones above where I used it as the main light to illuminate her face.

The main light here is open shade using the reflector as a fill.

The reflector is popping a little bit of light on the right side of her to make her a bit more evenly lit.

This is just classic Beauty Light, or front light.
The reflector is underneath her filling in any shadows that might happen from a light-source coming from above. Again this is natural open shade in front of sheer curtains on a window.

47 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Maxam says

    Thanks for the wonderful insight into your thought processes during a shoot. This kind of post is really very helpful for people who want to take their skills to the next level.

  2. 3 says

    Thank you Neil and Chuck!

    I am amazed at how simple a set up can yield such great images.

    Can you tell us why the flash is positioned so close to the subject and what difference it would make if it were backed up a bit?
    Secondly, I know Chuck tends to use his/your 50mm quite often. Were all these pics taken with that lens?


  3. 5Robb says

    Discovered your site a few days ago and I’m now a HUGE fan! Question: I have been trying to understand the relationship and practice of metering outdoors and using flash and reflectors. Do you always meter for the background/exterior light, and then put the model in? Do you meter for both, or do you simply meter for your setting, then just start adding light? Thank you so much!

  4. 6Chuck Arlund says

    First, thanks everyone and Neil for posting this.

    Neil might be better at explaining this but I’ll give it a go.
    The light position being close provides me with a couple of things. First power. I do not use battery packs, just the 580 like it is. The closer it is, the less power I need to get the results I want.
    Second is the closer the light the “softer” the light, meaning that it wraps around the subject better. I usually have the flash set to a zoom of 24mm and up to 50mm.

    About the lens. Yes that is the 50 in all of those shots, although I did use a 70-200 and a 17-40 throughout the shoot.

    I always meter for the scene regardless if the model is in the scene yet or not.
    I could then meter the light but I don’t really need to since I am only using one light. I set it to 1/8th power and take a shot and adjust from there. You could also do this with ttl and just dial up the exposure power also. I personally just like knowing exactly what I am going to get.


  5. 7Mohanpreet Singh (MP) says

    Chuck n Neil – thanks a lot for great article with simple but effective techniques.
    One question – you mentioned “If I was concerned with my depth of field I would use something like Radio Poppers to give me a faster sync speed that would allow me to use a shallower depth of field”
    I am struggling a little bit with using Pocket wizards with my manual flash. If I use highter than max synch speed (1/250) wont it partially block my flash. How can i have a shallow depth of field in bright outside sun using Pocket wizard or radio poppers.
    Thanks in advance.

  6. 8Chuck Arlund says

    With Pocket Wizards you cant go over your sync speed for all intents and purposes. Neil can provide links to exceptions to this.

    Radio Poppers allow you to use your Nikon or Canon flash systems to their full ability without the problems of line-of-sight. They convert the infrared signal to Radio waves therefor acting like a pocket wizard but providing all of the cool features that go along with a dedicated system. One of those being high speed sync. Which strobes the flash with your shutter curtain. Neil has an amazing graphic of this in his book.

    I use Canon and the line of sight just is not that reliable so the Radio Poppers allow me to shoot at a setting like 1/500 without sync problems.

    It is pretty amazing.
    Does that help?


  7. 9Tom K. says

    These are the kind of techniques and articles that make photography such a joy. Simple, straight forward and supremely effective. Such gorgeous photographs with such an easy method. I am very grateful to Chuck Arlund for providing this information. I look forward to using the lessons described here.

    Also Chuck, the photographs on your web site and blog are absolutely breathtaking. Beautiful, compelling work.

    Tom K.

  8. 10Danté Bell says

    Hi Neil & Chuck,

    Thanks so much for sharing this information. I’m trying to back into photography after 30 year absence and I really need information like this for using small lights on location. Not like the old days, when you either relied on natural light with some flags and reflectors or mega bucks portable lighting!

    Oh, and Nashville was my home-away-from-home. Eat at Sweats for me!

  9. 11Adi says

    Hi chuck, amazing picture. When you use the flash, you control the amount of light by adjusting the flash power. How do you control the amount of light when you use reflector? Did you change your exposure setting from the initial setting that you get when you meter the scene? Did you meter the scene with the reflector on or off? What brand and size reflector are you using?

  10. 13Chuck Arlund says

    Adi – Reflector is like a hot light. You see what you get. So metering is rather easy, just meter what you see.
    I am not sure what kind. Probably a Westcott. I’m sure it came bundled with a larger reflector. It is about 3″ in diameter.

    Rachel – The problems with the st-e2 are:

    1. You have the same line of sight problems, though they are even worse with this. For example, lets say you want the flash behind you, the st-e2 can’t “see” the flash so there is not flash. Or if you want to put the flash around a corner to illuminate a back room or something.
    With this shot …

    … I have a flash illuminating the model and another back in the back room to illuminate that room.
    With out radio wave this would never work with a line of sight system like canon.

    2. You do not have all of the features on a st-e2 that you would by just making one of your flashes a master. The Radio Popper goes right on top of the flash or the st-e2 for that matter and just transmits radio signal instead of line of sight. It really opens up a whole new world.

    Hope that answers your questions.


  11. 14Mohanpreet Singh (MP) says

    Chuck – Thanks for the answer.

    Neil – can you please provide a brief over using pocket wizard with Q flash or Nikon SB900 in manual mode, and getting over the camera max speed synch bump.

    Thanks in adavance.

  12. 16Jim says

    Great post. I actually got the chance to shoot and learn from Chuck for a day last summer. It really opened my eyes are basic and inexpensive set ups can give you amazing results. Like I told him that day, he saved me a ton of money!!! : ) I don’t know if he’s still doing those 1 day sessions, if he is I really recommend it. It will only make you better!!

    Thanks Neil for the post and all the posts, love what you do for the photo community!!!!


  13. 18Neil vN says

    Adi … Chuck answered that question in comment #6. I’ve indented Chuck’s replies now so that they stand out better.

    Neil vN

  14. 19 says

    Again a wonderful example of tonal placement and awareness using ambient and flash together :) When will people really understand that when we are doing flash photography we are really doing a ‘DOUBLE EXPOSURE’! First for the ambient light and then for the flash!

    It is very nice to see that this appraoch shows it well and thanks for the expose Chuck and Neil :) Well done!

  15. 20Estelle says

    Hi Neil & Chuck!
    Thx for this great article.
    Chuck, don’t you use any light modifier, umbrella, softbox, lightsphere, etc…
    You prefer a raw 24mm speedlight close to the subject rather than a modifier ?


  16. 21Chuck Arlund says

    I do not use any light modifiers. I do not necessarily prefer that but it is what I have so I use it. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of the softbox. It is easy light. Now if the softbox had a grid on it, that would be cool. I say this a little tongue in cheek.
    I have produced some nice images with a softbox but this is much easier to lug around.

    If I was shooting more wide angle or farther back from the subject and needed more flash coverage then a softbox or a silver reflector would be my choice.

    I am known to use many different things.
    Here is an article I wrote on my blog about using a street light as a modifier.


  17. 22Rob says


    Thanks for a great site, i have learned a lot and I recommend it to a lot of people!

    I have a similar question to Estelle above… Everywhere you read about bouncing flash and never using a direct flash and yet Chuck seems to favor the approach of a bare flash (at least from this article). I know he uses lots of techniques in different settings, but it is interesting that he is so much in favor of a direct flashgun approach!

    Great article Chuck!


  18. 24Bobby says

    Chuck and Neil. Thanks for the great article. Very simple explanations. And the great thing about this blog is that you guys answer reader’s questions, even if they are basic in nature.

  19. 25Jackie Heigle says

    Chuck, great “tutorial”… Easy to read, understand, and to see beautiful results. I’m passing this on to my students. Many thanks! J.

  20. 26Sheri Johnson says

    This was great information, thank you so much for sharing the details. I think the results are so good that it makes me want to rethink and simplify sometimes.

  21. 27Freddie G. says

    Will the bare flash lighting technique be as complimentary to subjects who have skin blemishes or other imperfections? And does it work as well with dark-skinned models?

  22. 28Chuck Arlund says

    Freddie – Subjects that have blemishes are not effected by this type of light any differently than any other.

    It is the position of light that helps with blemishes.
    Here are 2 examples. There photos are straight from camera, not Lightroom or Photoshop.
    The 1st is being lit by side light. Look into her forehead and notice that she has less than perfect skin.

    The second image I changed my position so the light was coming from the front and you can see that most of her imperfections have vanished without the use of processing, just light position.

    Let’s think about this. If the light travels across something that produces a shadow, like a zit or a scar or crease then the more away from the front the light gets the more a shadow you will have.

    Almost all of my lighting is directed somewhat from the front. My wife has bad acne scars and this was a way that I could almost eliminate them when I photograph her.

    1st Image:


    2nd Image with frontal light.


    Here is a video:

    Dark skin is no different at all. Just more light if needed.


  23. 29Keri says

    Weird question about reflectors:

    Everytime I try to use one like you did, with the sun reflecting off your reflector directly into your model’s face, I blind people. Is there some sort of trick to it that I’m not privy to? Or do you just tell them to suck it up and deal with it? Lol

  24. 30Chuck Arlund says

    Feather the light, don’t shine it right at them, plus they are usually looking at me and not directly into the reflector. When I do use it that was it is in shade where the intensity is not as bright.

    The example above we were using the reflector to her left side and she was looking away from the reflector.


  25. 32Chris Del Grande says

    Clarifying my comment in #31 above – the rear-curtain sync capability in the new PocketWizards is, of course, beneficial only at slow-shutter speeds. I wanted to bring that up because I believe that for off-camera-flash, these PWs are the only units currently capable of supporting both (A) high-speed sync at ultra-fast shutter speeds, and (B) rear-curtain sync at slow-shutter speeds (great for stopping action at the end of the frame during low light events).

  26. 35 says

    I have the pleasure and benefit of being a member of the same photography club (Brentwood Photography Group) as Chuck. It was a wonderful surprise to see his work highlighted here on Neil’s site. Great job Chuck and wonderful images!

  27. 36marine supply says

    The photo shots are perfect. I tried to take picture shot with my family. And when I did it, its too ugly to look at. Now I know that this kind of job is hard.

  28. 38russell07 says

    Just a thought – I know the lighting’s good, but feel the shots mainly look good due to awesome MUAs? People may be disappointed following these techniques and not considering the MU.

  29. 39Chuck says

    Russell, I can not argue that MUA makes a huge difference. I say that all of the time but. Look at the images in the comments about retouching from side light vs front light. Makeup is average at best and there is no retouching.

    As far as the shots go. Of course I have good makeup and styling. That is all part of the photo. That is why people go get their hair and makeup done before a photo-shoot or portrait. Brides spend hours getting hair and makeup done. But here is the same technique used on an old dude without makeup or hair. (he does not have much…) This is from a mini clinic I taught a couple of days ago.

  30. 40Jim Mucklin says

    Chuck, thank you for taking the time to show your setups and examples, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I have always been a fan of strong directional lighting and this is exactly what I was looking for.
    What do you pay your VAL? My neice requires gummy bears in advance.

  31. 41Pete says

    Hello everybody.
    What I think is essential is, in photographing women is a GREAT MAKE UP and a nice light. Without a good make up, there won’t be a good picture.
    Have a great day :)

  32. 42beth says

    This is a great blog, simple straight forward, logical. Why don’t they ever demonstrate technique in art school? We need you Chuck to come rescue our class with a workshop- the professors there can all talk fine art postmodern theory like there’s no tomorrow, but when it all comes down can’t take a single decent image amongst them!

  33. 43Loz says

    Thank you so much for such a great insight!

    It just goes to show that your techniques and equipment don’t have to be large and complex if you know how to use what you have, to the best effect! The images are fantastic, and have such amazing lighting to them. I can’t believe it was all done with a single strobe and a reflector!

    You’ve made me realise I need to master the equipment I have rather than feel the need to gain more! Practise and experiementing makes perfect!

    Thanks Chuck!

  34. 45Thomas Lester says

    Hey Chuck – I think it’s great that you take your kid with you to help. I’ve done the same. My son is now 13 (14 in April) and he shoots with me. He’s become a pretty awesome photographer and 2nd shoots with me at weddings and assists at other gigs. So… keep it up. Not only great bonding time, but he may end up building a similar passion!

    Your work is great. Thanks for giving back to the photo community.

  35. 46 says


    This is great. Ihave been a long-time believer and user of as simple a lighting setup as possible, so your technique really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing…

    PS My son is now just 4 months old, but as soon as he is well enough coordinated and up and about, I’ll put a camera in his hands ;-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *