How to Create Night Portraits with Off-Camera Flash

Getting started with off-camera flash is already scary enough, right? Now add the element of a dark night sky and trying to create portraits that doesn’t look like artificial light has just been thrown in with no control and it’s an entirely different ballgame.

So how do you get nighttime portraits with controlled light from off-camera flash? It’s really not as complicated as it may seem. 

I’m going to break down the process into a few easy steps, then I will give you some tips to help make your shoot go as smooth as possible.

Before we get into it, here’s a list of the gear I used for this shoot:

Camera: Canon EOS R5 
Lens: Canon RF70-200mm F2.8 
Lighting: Westcott FJ200, Westcott Rapid Box Switch Octa-M, Westcott FJ80 (used as a trigger) 

Step One // What is your scene? 

A good scene or “set” for a night portrait is what’s going to make the whole thing more interesting. If you don’t have some form of eye candy either in the foreground or in the background (or better, both) you’re just going to have a subject that appears to be standing in front of a black background. Obviously, this defeats the entire purpose. 

The fun part about night portraits is the ability to create a moody environment using not only the light from your flash system, but with rope lights, streetlights, candles, etc. in the background/foreground. 

Spend some time to really think through your scene. For me, I wanted the vibe of a couple having wine together at night, something that felt more editorial/lifestyle vs. a portrait that may feel too posed. I wanted a fun and warm atmosphere and the use of string lights and soft strobe really brought everything together. 

You also want to think about composition in your image as well. I chose to take a lower angle, shooting my subjects at more of an eye-level angle vs. top down so the viewer wouldn’t see any of the other not-so-appealing furniture in the background. Instead, by shooting at eye level, my couple was completely isolated in the trees with the string lights and lamps complimenting the scene with soft bokeh.

Step Two // Set your camera for the scene.

Once your composition is set and your subjects are in place, you want to get your camera settings dialed in for the scene. What does this mean? When you’re shooting in low light, you never want to lose the ambient in the scene. To maintain the ambient, you need to have a slow shutter speed. 

Assuming you’re doing this handheld, you will more than likely have some image blur. That’s ok, just know you’re only getting your scene dialed in and adding strobe will freeze your subject. 

I typically shoot in Aperture Priority (AV) when shooting in daylight with natural light. This allows me to adjust quickly as I move around my subject and the light changes. However, when using off-camera flash and with portraits at night, your light isn’t really going to be changing. So, I will shoot this in manual mode (M). 

Your shutter speed should be around 1/60th of a second or slower to really let the ambient light in and create the mood for your image. Your ISO should be around 800, and to create a nice shallow depth of field (again, it’s all about the mood in this image– I don’t want to see all the noise going on in the background), I will open my aperture (f-stop) to 2.8 or more, depending on how fast your lens is. 

Take a test shot. Do you like the way your scene looks? If no, adjust your camera settings until you get it right. At 1/60th of a second, I wasn’t getting the ambient I wanted, so I slowed down my shutter speed to 1/20th of a second to achieve the look I was going for as you will see in the final images. 

Background darkness is right, but I needed to change my composition and turn on some extra lights to get the right mood for the scene.

Step Three // Add off-camera flash.

When it comes to night portraits, you don’t want to just blast light on your subject. This will look amateur. Soft, controlled light is key here. You want your final image to look as natural as possible. 

At 1/60th shutter speed, there isn’t enough ambient in the background. I like the light on their faces, though.

For this shot, I used the Westcott FJ200 with the Rapid Box Switch Octa-M softbox. I didn’t have my FJ X2m trigger with me, so I used the FJ80 as my trigger to control the FJ200. 

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The direction of light is very important here to continue adding to the overall mood of the image. You could position the light from the same angle the camera is facing, pointing the direction of light straight-on to your subjects’ faces. This will be very flat light and won’t look very interesting. Lighting your subjects from the front will also light up the entire scene, which will defeat the entire purpose of this exercise. 

To add depth and dimension to your image, position the direction of light off to one side. This creates natural-looking shadows throughout your image and gives it all a more realistic look. 

When it comes to figuring out power, you have two options here: 

  1. Use a light meter to get dialed in using the flash system in manual mode, or,
  2. Let the camera and flash system work together using ETTL, which uses the camera’s metering system to take a guess at the amount of power needed. Keep in mind, this is JUST a starting point. Once you have an idea of how much brighter/darker you want the light, you will need to put your flash system into manual mode and adjust the power up or down to get it exactly the way you want it to look. 

PRO TIP: Angle your strobe up towards the sky to control light spill all over the ground (or the top of the table in my scenario). It is going to look and feel ridiculous to be pointing your flash into the air, but this will provide a soft and controlled path of light from the bottom part of the Octa-M softbox that is being feathered off from the center of the round strobe head. 

Step Four // Coach your subjects and have fun!

Now that your light is dialed in, give your subjects some direction and start shooting! There’s no need to change anything with your settings at this point (assuming the ambient light isn’t changing, or you aren’t changing your scene/composition). 

Make sure your subjects understand where the light is coming from so they don’t turn their bodies away from the light. Notice in the last two frames, I had my female subject turn her face into the flash so her face would be properly lit. 

Your gear should never get in the way of your shot. If you’re not comfortable with off-camera flash, take some time to practice with a can of soda or any non-judgmental subject so you can get comfortable with your gear before you have a paid client in front of your camera. 

Off-camera flash is not scary. Like anything good in the world, it just takes some good ol’ effort, practice, and dedication to mastering your craft. Once you’ve mastered the foundation, that’s when you can start experimenting. Add an additional strobe behind your subjects to create an edge light and even more depth to your final image. Adjust power settings. Create unique images and most importantly, have fun doing it!

Enjoy!

Final Image

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.8 ISO 800

SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera)

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.8 ISO 800