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Senior Photos with Bare Flash

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

It's possible to take beautiful, sharp photos without expensive flash modifiers. For this senior shoot, I used a bare flash to light my subject's face while the setting sun adds ambiance and hair light.

Before I continue, I want you to know that Speedliter's Blog is an Amazon Affiliate. This means that, at no cost to you, I may earn a commission from items you purchase from Amazon using the links in this blog. This applies to any brand or item you purchase within 24 hours, so if there's a different or more affordable alternative that gets you up and shooting faster, get it! Thanks for using our links and supporting Speedliter's Blog!


First let's touch on my camera body. I don't mean my sexy photographer physique; I mean the equipment that records the image onto its sensor. My main camera body at this time is the Canon 6D. It's reliable and it's affordable compared to it's big brother the 5D Mark IV.

As my subject and surroundings change, it's necessary to change lenses. When shooting a headshot or portrait at this distance, I choose a lens between 50 and 85mm. This allows some breathing room between myself and the subject. In this case I went with the Canon 85mm 1.8.

As you can tell by the name of this site, I am a fan of using strobes, or flashes, for photography. On this particular day the sun was low in the sky, screened by pine trees and providing a warm, filtered light. I needed to add fill light to brighten my subject without overpowering the beautiful setting sun. Rather than tussle with softboxes, I simply used a bare speedlite: A Canon 600EX-RT on a Manfrotto 1004BAC Light Stand controlled by a Yongnuo YN-E3-RT on my camera. I added a 1/2 cut CTO gel (included with Canon Speedlites) to warm up my strobe to match the warm sun. In hindsight, 1 full cut may have been better. A bare speedlite is around 6000 Kelvin (cool white) while the setting sun is closer to 2000-3000 Kelvin (warm white). If you do not gel your speedlite to match the surrounding light, it may add an unwanted hue or cause the surrounding light to look unnatural. In this case, the colder light on my subject's face would have given them a blue hue. While our eyes can adjust as we view these things in real life, your camera cannot balance them when recording the image to its sensor.


ISO: Low ISO will always produce the cleanest, sharpest image. Unless you're trying to add grainy effect or compensate for a low light situation, use a low ISO between 100-400. Try different ISO settings on your camera to learn how they effect the images.

SHUTTER SPEED: For clean, sharp images, faster shutter speed is better. At minimum, use the rule of matching shutter speed to focal length. This means if you are shooting with an 85mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/85th of a second or faster. 1/85th isn't a normal shutter speed option, so round up to 1/100th or faster. I prefer for my shutter speed to be upwards of 1/100th. For this shoot 1/125 was providing a relatively fast shutter without causing me to increase ISO out of the safe zone.

APERTURE: I wanted to blur my background without losing the lines created by the tree branches so I used f/4.5. I usually prefer a wide aperture like 2.8 or wider. But keep in mind that wider aperture means smaller focus range (less of your subject in focus at any given time). If you're not confident that your image will be sharp, a smaller aperture will give you a wider focus range meaning better odds of capturing a sharp image. When in doubt, go a little smaller (larger f number).


Discuss outfits ahead of time to talk about what your subject likes to wear and what will match your location. Solid colors are usually safer. Multiple outfits can be a life saver as you can switch things up depending on your background. I love using props, so I also ask what my senior subjects are into (sports, hobbies, etc) and ask if they want to bring props.

Try different poses. I usually do a smiling photo and a not smiling photo and take photos both of my subject looking at the camera and to the right or left at a 45 degree angle depending on the lighting. If a pose doesn't look good, provide specific instructions to your subject where to move/twist, turn.

Here is a lighting diagram (behind the scene) for this shot!

My senior subject plays hockey, so in this photo we used his hockey stick and an iconic sports pose. I chose a warm black and white style for the final photo.

SETTINGS: 1/180 sec at f/3.2, ISO 320

This is my favorite image from the shoot. I love the warm late afternoon sun shining through the pine trees and providing a warm hair light. I added a soft matte effect to the final image to give it a little style. If you don't know how to create a matte effect, check out this post.

SETTINGS: 1/125 sec at f/4.5, ISO 320

Here's another pose we tried with coat over the shoulder. While not terribly different, a different pose or slight outfit adjustment provides another option for clients to choose from.

SETTINGS: 1/180 sec at f/3.2, ISO 320

Thanks for reading this post. Feel free to ask questions about this shoot in the comments below.


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