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Seven Reasons Why I Like Natural Light Portraits More Than Flash

Every coin has two sides, and today, we're going to take a look at the natural light side of the lighting conversation. Here are seven different reasons why I think that natural lighting for portraits is pretty damn rad when compared with using flash.

A few days ago, fellow Fstoppers writer Craig Beckta listed seven reasons why he feels that flash is the way to go when you talk about portrait lighting. He raised some great points and really generated a lot of conversation about the use of flash versus available lighting. Today, I wanted to offer up the other side of the conversation and play devil's advocate on this particular subject. I'm here to say that I prefer natural lighting and break down why it's my preference and go over some of the advantages and reasons why you should consider your available light before you think about flash.

1. Realness

Natural light looks real; that is to say that it feels natural to the viewer rather than artificial (no duh!). When you want your portrait lighting to look and feel authentic, it makes a lot of sense to go with what is actually in the scene, natural light. While not always the case, sometimes, people can tell when artificial light is being used, and this can lead to a disconnect for the viewer. If the brain starts to wonder why the lighting looks the way it does, it may alter the intended mood of the image.

 

2. Equipment

From an equipment perspective, working with natural light is way easier than lugging around flash gear and modifiers. This one is pretty self-explanatory: if you could carry just a simple camera bag around or carry your camera bag, flash heads, light stands, flash modifiers, and battery packs or extension cords, which would you prefer to do? Not to mention that if you're at a public location, the use of anything other than your camera itself may not be allowed or may draw unwanted attention to your shoot.

 

3. Reading Light

Working with available light forces you to learn to read the light around you and can open your eyes in new ways to things you see everyday. You'll literally be training your eyes and brain to see the quality of light for a given scene, which can lead to a new appreciation for your surroundings.

4. It's a Classic

Window lighting is as about as tried-and-true as you can get; it's classic for a reason. Renowned classical painters and artists from history would mimic window lighting in their work for a reason; it looked real. While they were limited by the availability of things we take for granted today (like electricity to provide artificial light, for example) they opted to mimic the way window light falls on the face and body in their work, and those same patterns and techniques have stuck around for hundreds of years. 

5. Catchlights

Natural lighting catchlights look hands-down amazing. The colors, the feeling, the emotion, and the real reflections of the scenery in the eyes are a hard thing to beat. Have you ever seen a bright blue sky complete with clouds reflected in someone's eyes? Good luck recreating that with a strobe.

6. Reflectors

Reflectors are an inexpensive and valuable tool you can use to help sculpt the light in your scene. While there are certainly some more economical options when it comes to flash equipment, you're not going to find something that is both as inexpensive and as versatile as a trusty old 5-in-1 reflector. Need to sculpt the light in your scene with either warmer light or more specular highlights? No problem, use the gold or silver material. Looking to bounce or cut down on bounce light from one direction? Use the white or black material. Need to turn a hard light into a soft and flattering light source? Yeah, there is scrim material too. You can find this basic tool in the neighborhood of $20. What kind of flash equipment can you get for $20? 

7. Bokeh

If you like a soft, blurred background, you may run into trouble with strobes unless you're looking to invest in HSS options. A soft background for portrait work is understandably iconic: it keeps the focus of the image right on the subject. Working with natural lighting, your factors that determine this are your aperture (open up wide for the sweet, sweet bokeh!), your focal length, and your distance from both subject and background. If you introduce a flash to the equation, you need to be aware that you'll need either a flash that can potentially fire at a very low power level or a flash that can operate at high speed sync with your camera (not all flash equipment can do this).

Bonus Reason 8. Time of Day

You get to spend more time at sunrise and sunset and generally chasing genuinely beautiful light. If you're wanting to work with super-beautiful natural light (dare I say a golden light?), you'll get to spend more time admiring a sunrise or sunset. If you've ever wished you could see more sunsets, try spending a summer shooting outdoor portraits in a sunny locale. Hard to beat a warm hillside bathed in beautiful golden light every night. 

Now, it's time for a few concessions, because like all things (including flash), natural light isn't without its own shortcomings, and I'll be the first to admit that nothing is perfect. First, you're definitely limited by daylight and what light is available to your scene. When it's nighttime, you're not going to find yourself shooting incredible portraits in the dark using just a wide aperture and a super-high ISO; sorry, but that's just not going to happen. And second, there are different kinds of light setups that you can do in a studio that would be incredibly difficult to mimic using purely natural light. Take colored gels, for example: that's a look that you're just not going to be able to recreate with available light.

What do you folks think, do you agree or disagree with the reasons I've listed? Also, know that this isn't so much a debate as it is simply additional information at your disposal. I've shot all the images you see in this article on my D750 camera using either my 85mm or 50mm lens and using only the available light in the scene. Neither flash or natural light is certifiably better than the other, and I think that it's important for people to try both and understand that each has both advantages and limitations. Furthermore, your own personal preference is paramount, and no one is trying to convince you that one approach is correct and the other incorrect. As long as you're out there creating what you want to, you're on the right track. 

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41 Comments

Andrew Ashley's picture

I love natural light as well... when it works out. However, that's like saying, I love it when I arrive at the Grand Canyon and there are perfectly clouds in the sky and a gorgeous sunset, with lightning striking in the distance and then a eagle hovers mid flight in front of the camera lit by a shaft of light through a small break in the clouds. Well yea. And yes, exaggerating to make a point. If you get great light or can take the time plan and find that light then great, use it. But if you are on a deadline, have 30 minutes or 5 with your model or subject and little control over your environment, then bring strobes to control your light and environment. This is not like good versus evil, right side twix versus left, Marvel versus DC, Batman versus Superman, prime versus zoom, dog versus cat. Why must it be this versus that... I would love it natures light always cooperated. It doesn't.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Andrew, I don't think it's so much an argument or debate as it is simply preference. I agree very much that neither is actually better than the other, simply different. Also, loved the right vs left Twix example haha ^_^

Linnea Lenkus's picture

Well put.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks William, I appreciate it. Craig did a great job with his article making the case for the benefits of flash for sure

Craig Beckta's picture

Great article Evan, I really enjoyed it. Your images are awesome as well.

Evan Kane's picture

Thank you Craig, right back at you! You make a great case for flash-based portraits! :)

Alessandro Biehl's picture

I think this isa another great written article. Another one that makes me think just a little deeper. But if I were to nitpick something, how natural is this natural light you love to use and find for its real ness when you dodge and burn the luminosity effectively changing the light. I mean the dodge and burn is beautful. But it certainly doesn't look or feel authentic, like it's "in the scene", as brought up in Point 1 Realness.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Alessandro, you raise a point about editing, which while I view as a crucial part of any photography, regardless of how it was shot. For sure, I edit my work to complete the mood or vision that I have for a given shot, but I definitely don't think that editing "changes the light."

Lighting and editing work together, I don't view one as altering the other but rather editing accents the shot from the camera. The lighting for a given scene (whether it's natural light, flash lighting, or both) is the lighting in the shot and editing won't change it.

Alessandro Biehl's picture

Thanks for the reply Evan! So when you're dodgniting and brining up the luminosity in certain Areas, if you're not changing the light then what are you changing ?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Haha I love natural light too... In countries with great natural light. It's hard to take a bad photo in natural light in LA.
Singapore though... Ugh. Harsh unflattering light and our magic hour last minutes. Maybe that's why we have so many great studio photographers here haha!
Great article though (:

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks very much Shavonne! I haven't really done any international travel but it would be really interesting to see what is and isn't available across different locations around the world :)

Peter Petschauer's picture

natural light is fine , but somehow some faces are edited too much.
Under 1.Realness is an image with a face that has nothing to do with realness . Too me this looks awful - the skin and face is miles away from reality

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the constructive criticism ;)

majid gharamohamadi's picture

ok! more of contrasting and burning and dodging in photoshop to be like to flash lighting!! I have nothing to say.

Daniel Medley's picture

I don't understand the whole natural light vs flash thing. Why not just look at it from the position of having the tools to do whatever you need to do? If natural light works for the vision, go for it. If your vision for a particular shot needs flash, go for it. Trust me, there are plenty of circumstances in which natural light just isn't the best way to go. Just like there are certainly times in which natural light is absolutely the way to go.

An observation: I quite often see photographers advertise themselves as "natural light photographers", but I've yet to see one proclaim themselves to be an "artificial light photographer." Why is that?

My approach is to be able to go natural or flash and have the skill and tools to do either. That way I'm just a photographer.

Richard Twigg's picture

"Artificial light photographer" made me giggle. Thank you for that. :)

Evan Kane's picture

I agree with you Daniel, I don't view it as a versus type of thing. By all means, everyone should try and find/use whatever tools work best for them to get their work done!

Jason Bodden's picture

Absolutely perfect comment. 100%

Bjarne Solvik's picture

The moment you pick up a reflector you might just as well use a flash. You are starting to modify the light to create a image. The only thing is that you are more limited and have less control.

Using a large surface to reflect light can be beautiful to, or even better a large diffuser screen.

The biggest question is not flash or natural light, but the skills of the photographer.

But with natural light more editing in Photoshop might be needed, to brighten parts of the face, like around eyes and also eyes and cathlight.

So one way or the other light needs to be mastered to create that stunning image.

Evan Kane's picture

The differences between a reflector and a flash are quite staggering, so the notion that if you're using a reflector you may as well use flash doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Thanks for the comment Bjarne, I think that modifying light can be thought of as a bit of a fluid concept :)

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Just look at how clamshell lighting are done, one main light from up sbove and a reflector from under. Some people don't use a reflector but a softbox, so they can control the fill better. It's as simple as that.

My point is that even a reflector is a modifier, and I don't see a huge difference, besides more control with a flash.

Jason Bodden's picture

Actually, that's not true at all. I agree with Evan on this. This comment makes no sense to me whatsoever. Just because YOU don't see a huge difference means flash should be used? Okay, by that logic, if you think the light looks so similar, what's the point of bringing a light when you can just reflect it?

A reflector and using flash are NOT the same. Sometimes all you need is a reflector with the natural light you've chosen to use. Period. Obviously, a reflector is a modifier but that's not helping your case at all because it makes precious little sense or none at all.

Richard Twigg's picture

Gorgeous images in this article. My only thought is, if the client wants shots at noon I *have* to modify the light. And for personal projects, good luck getting a model up at sunrise for a shoot. That's why I have to modify the light 99% of the time.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Richard :)

Evan Kane's picture

I think it's a bummer that you feel natural lighting is ruined through editing! I don't see editing as the enemy and neither should you :)

Deleted Account's picture

Did you get permission from Carlton to use his image?

Linnea Lenkus's picture

I love natural light and that's what I try to recreate in my studio photography. However, I find that many newbie photographers don't always have a "sense" of light.

Luke Adams's picture

I love natural light for the natural look it gives for sure. However, the biggest thing I love is flexibility in post. Natural light gives you more of a blank canvas to work with IMO. Flash gives you a very baked-in look. I always say it’s hard to ruin a shot with natural light. It’s pretty easy to do though with flash.

Craig Beckta's picture

In regards to portrait photography, it is really easy to ruin a shot in natural light on a bright sunny day. If you expose for the highlights your subject will be too dark. Which means you will have to significantly raise the shadows in post which looks fake and adds noise. If you have poor lighting on your subject then you will need to do way more retouching on the face in post. You may want to experiment yourself to better understand my explanation.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Luke, I agree that I think flash can sometimes have a "baked-in" look but it's very much possible to ruin a natural light shot haha.

Craig is definitely on point about bright sunny days. If you don't plan accordingly and just start shooting at high noon in an open field, you're not going to have much to work with and no amount of post work can save you haha :P

Jason Bodden's picture

You can always tailor flash to look more like natural light. You can get myriad looks with flash, one being a more natural look. It's all about balance. So this "baked-in" thing I see people say about flash doesn't hold much water for me. I understand if natural light is your preference but the reasoning is a bit dodgy.

Cristian Perotti's picture

Completely agree.

Michael Kormos's picture

Most photographers that rave over natural light vs flash tend to be the ones like Dani Diamond - ill experienced and lacking in knowledge. Dodge and burn tools in PS cannot ever replace actual light. Natural light lacks consistency, reliability, luminance, temperature, and presence that flash provides. Actions and presets will only get you so far until your fallacy as a photographer is exposed. Master all ligtht, natural and artificial to become a master of this craft, or go home.

Evan Kane's picture

Amazing, every word of what you just said is wrong :)

Rick Pappas's picture

Between the Beckta article and this one, you'd think that there was a superiority contest between light sources. Seriously? Photographers who are solid in their craft have the skill to use natural light, artificial light and blended light instinctively in order to get the job done. A great photo is a reflection of that skill...not the light source.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Rick, I think your last sentence is a really great point, "A great photo is a reflection of that skill. . .not the light source." :)

David Hutsell's picture

Evan, I like your approach to environmental portraiture. Less is often better. I recently did my granddaughters senior portraits in Flaming Geyser State Park (south of Seattle) and was able to make great images with existing light with reflectors or a small fill flash. The fall in the PNW is a great place to do this.

Keep up the good work.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment David, great work with that portraits! Those will make some wonderful senior portraits :)

Akpe ododoru's picture

Your images are really good dude but one thing i have noticed a lot is that, its only the ones that don't know how to use flash that always ADVOCATE for natural light 😉.

1) REALNESS? Well even though your images look really good, your pics don't look real anymore after all that dodge & burn and serious colour grading to change the whole look of the image from real life look 🤷🏿‍♂️

2)EQUIPMENT? Speedlights, ad200 or B10 are really small and powerful (doesn't always have to be the big guns)

3)Reading Light? The more reason to be versatile with different lighting. The day the weather refuses to cooperate with me, i can decide to create whatever feel i want with flash lights and modifiers.

5)Catchlights? What if on the day there is no bright blue sky complete with clouds, do you send your client home?

I personally have shot with Natural light, flash light, video light and a mixure of all (the possibilty is endless.

Even though natural light might be your thing, still learn to use other lights, you'll love it 👍🏿

RAVI MAHADEVAN's picture

I agree hands down though I do shoot pictures with 'Artificial Light' too. The term is self sounding as artificial as it could be for all valid reasons. As said, the kind of molding I get with the speedy lenses on MF or otherwise with the natural light is something to die for. The contrast blend from the dark to the lights is what makes the difference for me. As a matter of fact, i do not even prefer the reflectors as it steals the feel. Movie lighting cameramen life their life to imitate natural light with the artificial source. And that's where the scores are settled.

Jason Bodden's picture

All these images are gorgeous and I love both natural light and flash equally but I don't think there's any disconnect to the viewer. If they know flash is used, they know. Just because they know doesn't mean that light isn't making them feel something either. Natural light isn't the only light that can create mood. It's just a look of many looks you can get with flash. It isn't difficult to tailor artificial light to one's taste to make it look natural. I'm a huge proponent of natural light.

I use flash a lot but my last two shoots were natural light and I enjoyed them thoroughly. Your point about not having to lug heavy gear is very valid. On those shoots, apart from a small camera bag, I really only took my round fabric case of reflectors (I also brought along one speedlight and a small softbox *just in case* I needed a kiss of light where natural light might have fallen short lol. But I left those in the car, in the trunk, away from wandering eyes). Always have one with me regardless. Didn't need it on these shoots, though). It's a lot more "freeing" way to shoot for sure.

I'm not trying to be difficult but I continually see the same reasons for natural light over flash, some of which are a stretch at best. Still, this is a great article with some salient points for natural light. To end this off, I'll repeat that I absolutely love both natural light and flash when used separately or in tandem. I love all types and qualities of light. I just love light lol. They both have pros and cons. You're right that it's purely down to preference.