Create With Light: Flash in the Great Outdoors


Here's a suggestion for better, more creative, more imaginative landscape photos: when you're packing your camera bag, add to the camera, lenses and filters one more item that spells creative control: a Nikon SB Speedlight.

And if you want to get really creative about it, add an SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander unit for off-camera shooting with flash.

We know what you're probably thinking: Hey, we're going to be outdoors; there's plenty of light. Yes, there is. But the light we're suggesting you add is a different kind of light. It's light you control; light that responds to your imagination and experimentation.

And because you're using Nikon Speedlights, it's light that's easy to control. No formulas, no guide numbers, no pacing off or measuring distances. Set the flash for Auto TTL and you're good to go. Need to control the Speedlight's output? Do it right from the camera when the flash is mounted on the hot-shoe, or from the SU-800 Commander when you want to shoot wireless, off-camera flash.

The learning curve? About ten minutes to master the basics.

But before we talk about the how, let's get to the why.

Outside Shots

When outdoor and adventure photographer Tom Bol talks to his workshop students about outdoor flash and demonstrates some of its possibilities, his first aim is to show how a flash can help them deal with challenging landscape situations. "It will create light where there isn't any, or there isn't enough," he says, "and it will allow you to control the direction of that light if you position the flash off camera."

Flash can also reduce contrast in an image—or add it, if that's what you're looking for. And it can set off your subject to call attention to it. Not to mention reveal detail and give an image more dimension, drama and color.

"We're so conditioned to use light to take out the shadow under a hat brim in an outdoor or travel portrait," Tom points out, "but how about instances where we want to create shadows? Or use flash so we can deliberately underexpose the background and make it basically pitch black?"

Most of the time you'll likely want flash to be invisible. Tom's photos of the birds with the little catch lights in their eyes don't announce the presence of flash. Same for the subtle, soft light that gives an added dimension to the slot canyon. In those cases, flash doesn't announce its contribution.

On the other hand, there are times when you might want flash to show itself in order to create a different kind of picture, one that's beyond the faithful recording of a scene.

And there's a third hand: some folks will look at some of Tom's comparisons and decide they prefer the no-flash photo and the mood it sets. It's your call—give it a (flash) shot and decide what works for you.

Flash is a tool to open up creative possibilities for landscape photography.

Easy Does It

As far as the ten-minute learning curve, Tom admits that sometimes in the workshops he winds up battling the idea that flash is complex and hard to do. "I tell people that it's as simple as putting the flash on your camera, turning the camera on and taking a picture. The technology is going to work: in the classic TTL mode, the Nikon Speedlight is going to add the right amount of light to the scene. I'm in TTL mode most of the time when I'm using my Speedlights, and if I don't like the look of the photo, I'll go plus or minus power at the Commander or the on-camera flash."

And the rest of the ten minutes? "That's the second step—where you use the flash off camera to control the direction of the light and get the right angle for the articulated shadows that allow you to 'recreate' sunlight and making it look like the sun is beaming through a scene. When you place the flash off camera, you're  pretty much trying to recreate natural light."

Off-camera use of Nikon Speedlights is just about as easy as flash-on-camera. Mount your SU-800 Commander on the camera, place your Speedlight anywhere you want it in line-of-sight to the Commander and control the light output of the flash right from the camera position. (If you want to move up a notch to radio control of your Speedlight—meaning that line-of-sight access isn't necessary—Nikon's SB-5000 and WR-R10 wireless radio transmitter will handle that for you.)

Tom keeps it all simple: he typically carries the SU-800 and one Speedlight, though he's lately started using the SB-5000 and the WR-R10. And while Nikon flash gear is both technically amazing and incredibly easy to use, what's really the key to effective flash photos is to keep ideas and possibilities in mind. "You're in a great location, but it's a gray day," Tom says. "The light's flat—it's giving you nothing. That's the time to get out the Speedlight and pop a little flash onto that tree trunk or across those leaves and give yourself the chance to create something that looks good. I always tell my workshop classes that flash is a tool to open up creative possibilities for landscape photography. "

Tom Bol is an adventurous and inventive photographer with over 25 years experience shooting editorial, commercial, lifestyle and advertising assignments. He is the author of Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places. Examples of his work and information about his workshops can be found at

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