Lighting on the go: boost environmental portraits with flash

Photojournalist Nikolai Linares took the Canon EOS R3 on a skatepark shoot to demonstrate the power and flexibility of the Canon Speedlite EL-1 for portraiture on location.
A skateboarder with long curly hair jumping off a ramp with blue sky behind him.

Danish photojournalist Nikolai Linares needed a flexible setup with a fast, powerful flash to capture action-stopping environmental portraits on a clear, sunny day. Shots like this were possible thanks to the Canon Speedlite EL-1's support for wireless high-speed sync at fast shutter speeds. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 28mm, 1/3200 sec, f/3.5 and ISO160. © Nikolai Linares

"When I have to photograph someone on a sunny day, they often say that it's such good weather for pictures. And I always tell them that a photographer's favourite weather is actually overcast and grey!"

Photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Nikolai Linares frequently shoots portraits for a range of news outlets, and he often supplements ambient light with artificial light sources – from Speedlite flashes to portable LEDs – to achieve the desired look. This is especially important to ensure that details are not lost in the deep shadows caused by bright sunshine. On a recent outdoor assignment, photographing skateboarder Diego Fiorese at Fælledparken Skatepark in Copenhagen, Denmark, Nikolai paired a high-speed Canon Speedlite EL-1 with the equally rapid Canon EOS R3.

With its blistering 30fps burst rate and ability to flash sync with its electronic shutter, the Canon EOS R3 is the perfect choice for outdoor portraits. It's as adept at capturing subtle shifts in a portrait-sitter's expression as it is at freezing lightning-fast action.

The Canon Speedlite EL-1's combination of flexible power control, fast recycling, active cooling and long battery life ensures that it doesn't miss a beat when it comes to high-speed shooting. To extend his lighting options further, Nikolai used a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10 on the EOS R3's Multi-function shoe to control the Speedlite EL-1 wirelessly.

How did Nikolai get the most from the gear on this shoot, and what advice would he offer to photographers taking on a similar portrait commission with flash?

A close-up portrait of a man with short facial hair, long curly hair and a woolly hat.

Nikolai used the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens for this razor-sharp portrait, making use of the lens's Spherical Aberration Control to adjust bokeh and again taking advantage of the Speedlite EL-1's high-speed sync. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens and Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 1/1000 sec, f/3.5 and ISO160. © Nikolai Linares

Using flash as the main light

Nikolai typically uses only one Speedlite when shooting outdoor portraits, "mainly because the people I'm photographing don't have much time," he explains. "If the sun is out, then I can use that as a fill light, so it looks as though I have two lights."

Nikolai advises doing some test shots, first with the Speedlite switched off, in order to set the exposure for the background, then with the Speedlite switched on, to work out the optimum flash output. With the Canon EOS R3 you can also use the vertical exposure level indicator in the viewfinder to give an indication of the exposure difference between the ambient light exposure and flash exposure before you take the shot.

"If you're using the sun, then you need to figure out how you want the background to be lit. With the close-up portrait of Diego with his back to the sun, the exposure meant that his face was totally in shadow without flash, but I was still able to see a rim light around his hair and his hat, and the light coming through the trees in the background.

"Once I could see that was working, I could leave the shutter speed, aperture and ISO locked in and then just find the right amount of flash to put out so that his face wouldn't be lost in the dark, or be totally overexposed. Which is down to how far away you put the Speedlite and how much power you put on it."

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.

It's also possible to use the camera's E-TTL (Evaluative Through-the-Lens) autoflash mode, which calculates how much light the flash needs to emit, and sets the output accordingly. The Canon EOS R3 also offers a Face Priority option, which works with the camera's face detection and eye tracking AF: choose this option, and the flash will meter only from the subject's face. "I used the autoflash mode, and it worked really well," Nikolai says. "But for this shoot I used the manual setting because I wanted to have more creative control over the light when mixing it with the extreme sunlight."

A skateboarder at the top of a drop, viewed from below, his board protruding over the edge.

Although Nikolai kept things simple with a single flashgun, the Canon Speedlite EL-1 can be used as part of a multi-flash setup, controlled by the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10, which also supports high-speed sync. A conventional hotshoe Speedlite can also be used as the master unit on the Canon EOS R3 via the Multi-Function Shoe Adaptor AD-E1. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens and Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 28mm, 1/4000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO320. © Nikolai Linares

A skateboarder squatting on his board, photographed close to the camera.

Nikolai positioned the flash low for this wide-angle shot, in addition to lying on the ground himself. "When you're not sure where your subject will enter the frame, shooting wide gives you the opportunity to crop the shot later," he explains. "It would be too risky to use a telephoto lens and hope that they might end up in the frame." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 28mm, 1/4000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO320. © Nikolai Linares

Positioning the flash

With the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10 fitted on the hotshoe of his Canon EOS R3, Nikolai had the freedom to control the Canon Speedlite EL-1 remotely from up to 30 metres away. Unlike the radio transmitters Nikolai had used in the past, the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10 doesn't need batteries, instead drawing its power from the camera's Multi-function shoe. It also has a single Menu button that instantly brings up the Speedlite settings menu on the camera's screen.

"For some of the shots I would put the Speedlite on a stand," Nikolai says. "For example, in the shot of Diego standing above me, I positioned a stand on the left of the picture and zoomed the flash head so that the light would hit only his face. If you look at his trousers, you can see that the sun is behind him."

When shooting action shots in among the skatepark's ramps, however, Nikolai held the Speedlite EL-1 in his hand. "Having a stand down there would be too risky, and I didn't know exactly where he would land. We planned that he would come into the shot from the right, go up the ramp, and then down on my left. So that meant that I could just focus on trying to get him in the frame.

A muscular, shirtless athlete with a handlebar moustache grimaces with effort as he grips on to gymnastic rings.

What makes a winning sports portrait?

Canon Ambassador Łukasz Skwiot explains his approach to sports portraiture and shares key industry advice for succeeding in the genre.

"The Canon EOS R3 and the Speedlite El-1 worked really well together," Nikolai continues. "Sometimes using a flash can slow you down, with recharging times and so on, but that wasn't the case with this setup."

A skateboarder sitting on his skateboard in a skatepark cradle, arms wrapped around his knees.

This shot, taken with the Speedlite EL-1 switched off, illustrates how Nikolai works with existing shadows. "I wanted to make sure that Diego was positioned so that his hat stayed within the shadow behind him," he explains. "I was trying to make it as clean as possible so that the focus was on his face." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 41mm, 1/4000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Nikolai Linares

Controlling the shadows

If you're taking your first steps in using flash for environmental portraits, Nikolai suggests shooting from a position where the sun isn't directly behind you – especially during the autumn and winter, where the sun is lower throughout the day. "Otherwise you risk your own shadow making it into the frame in front of you," he explains. "It's the same deal with a remote Speedlites, if you've got that positioned on a light stand or something.

"So, you have to think a lot about how to clean up the shadows in pictures taken on bright days, as well as making sure that you are using the flash in the shadow areas of your subject."

A skateboarder coming off his board at the top of a ramp on a sunny autumnal day.

Nikolai relied on the Canon EOS R3's advanced autofocus for the entire shoot. "It was so fast at picking out Diego when he came into the frame," he says. "It started off focusing on the background, but when Diego came into the shot, the camera locked on to him immediately. That was really something new for me." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/16 and ISO200. © Nikolai Linares

Using flash as fill light

Exposing for the highlights and adding fill-in flash to open the shadows is a classic technique for achieving more flattering outdoor portraits on sunny days. But choosing to use a large aperture to reduce the depth of field or to capture a fast-moving subject means you need a Speedlite that's capable of syncing at rapid shutter speeds.

Both the Canon Speedlite EL-1 and Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10 support high-speed sync via wireless communication, which Nikolai took advantage of when using a shutter speed of 1/4000-1/6400 sec to freeze Diego in mid-air.

"There was one shot where I wanted to see if we could catch him in the air but still get some movement in the picture, so I ended up dropping the shutter speed to 1/160 sec, and you can see motion in his feet and arms. He was falling in the shot, but I like the picture, as it shows that you don't land everything as you want when you're skateboarding."

A skateboarder at the top of a cradle with yellow tiles around the lip, in a skatepark.

"I first tried this shot with the Speedlite EL-1 mounted on its mini-stand," reveals Nikolai. "But the light ended up being too close in direction to the sunlight, so it wasn't really helping with the shadows on Diego." Laying the Speedlite on the floor, just out of shot on the right of the frame, helped to solve the problem, and its high-speed sync capability ensured that it fired precisely when needed. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 36mm, 1/3200 sec, f/3.5 and ISO250. © Nikolai Linares

Manual flash for maximum power

"The day of the shoot was very bright, so I knew that the Speedlite would have to work really hard," Nikolai explains. "As we were working in full sun, I needed as much flash power as possible for the majority of the shots. Setting the Speedlite to 1/1 in manual mode meant that I knew it would give me full power when I pressed the shutter release. Of course, when I was using the 30fps mode on the Canon EOS R3, the flash wasn't able to fire 30 full flashes per second, but I still had plenty of options to choose from."

The Speedlite EL-1 isn't just a powerful tool for flash photography in bright sunlight, as its flash output can be reduced to a granular 1/8192th of full power. It also features a built-in bi-colour LED modelling light. "It wasn't usable for me on this shoot, as I was shooting in bright sunlight, but it's definitely something that I would use because I love to do portraits in low light," says Nikolai. "During the winter, I usually carry small LED lamps, and maybe the EL-1's modelling light could do some of that if it's dark enough."

Marcus Hawkins

Nikolai Linares' kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Nikolai Linares' kitbag with Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R3

A camera that lets you photograph sport, wildlife and news like never before. Its Eye Detection and Face Detection AF enables you to lock on to subjects with blazing speed and precision. "When Diego came straight into the shot, the camera locked onto him immediately," says Nikolai. "I must say that this was really something new for me."



Related Articles


    Slik kan blits forbedre reportasjen din

    Canon Ambassador Fabio Mirulla forklarer hvordan de nyskapende blitsteknikkene han bruker til bryllupsfotografering, også kan brukes til fotojournalistikk.


    Fryse raske bevegelser med Speedlite EL-1

    Actionsportfotografen Dave Mackison deler historien bak den første profesjonelle fotoseansen med Canons lette, kraftige og profesjonelle blitslampe.


    Kickboxing reportage with the EOS R3

    How Canon's latest high-speed mirrorless camera enabled photojournalist Nikolai Linares to document a young boy's fight for sporting success.


    Pro tips for perfect exposures with flash in low light

    Redline Challenge mentor Lorenz Holder reveals his three favourite techniques when shooting sunset and night-time photography with flash.

  • Get the newsletter

    Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro