Anti-Strobism: How I Learned to Give Up My Strobes and Fall In Love With Natural Light

Anti-Strobism: How I Learned to Give Up My Strobes and Fall In Love With Natural Light

In photography - and in anything else, really - it seems as though when we first discover something new, whether it be a new camera, a new technique, and/or a new system of doing things, it’s fairly natural I think to want to use it all the time. When I first “discovered” photography, I immediately gravitated toward those photographers like Emily Soto, Zach Arias, Joey L, and Syl Arena. I was smitten by their strobe work and their use of off-camera flash. To me, it was fresh and new and their ability to bend and shape light, combined with their technical and artist prowess, pushed me in every attempt to emulate their respective bodies of work.

So smitten in fact, that I bought the strobes they used, I bought the flashes they recommended, I watch BTS videos and tried my best to reverse engineer their shots. I lived and died by their blog and Facebook posts. In some cases, I even went and sought out the same models they used in the hopes of capturing some of that magic. While I believe that in some cases I came close, the truth is that I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be in relation to their work. In addition to lacking the ability to shape and twist the light as they did, I lacked the desire (and the assistants) to lug gear around from shoot to shoot as well as the technical prowess for the vast amount of post processing needed (in some cases).

After a late night conversation with a friend of mine who informed me that my work looked like a poor man's version of the artists I was trying to emulate, I forced myself to take a more natural and minimalist approach. I ditched my outdoor lighting gear, sold off my second 580EXII, and began experimenting with using only natural light in my photo shoots. 


To be honest, it was a difficult conversation - although I ditched my lighting gear, I still held on to my studio gear and my reflectors because if nothing else, I wanted a fall back in case I failed miserably. Also, while the relative ease of moving into an area, shooting and moving on to the next is obviously much greater without gear, there are a lot of other factors to consider, which I later discovered. 

As I said, it wasn't an easy journey from strobed work to an all natural light approach. I shot a lot. A LOT. And so several hundred shoots and two years later, I believed I developed a natural light technique which I think works fairly well and has become part of what I consider to be my “look” or style as a photographer. I’ve had several requests over the last few months to talk about what I do and how I go about it, so I’ve broken it down into several steps so that you can try out on your own. As with anything else, this is my technique and it works for me - your mileage may vary, attempt at your own risk, etc. 

My natural lighting technique. Preface. 

I have to say that of all the things to take into account when shooting natural light, one of the most important things is the fact that you have to let a little bit of what you know about proper exposure go. In my opinion, the beauty of shooting in natural light is that there are so many variables that often, shooting the same model on two consecutive days (or two consecutive hours!) has the possibility to yield entirely different results. In addition, to me, there beauty also lies in the light and dark and how they play off one another - that a photo can be at once underexposed and overexposed blown out and too dark is what makes the photo. Sure, sure, understanding how to expose properly is great (and recommended), but understanding that a good photo is not always properly exposed is also key to breaking away from conventional rules and finding a style all your own. 


That said, there are some basics things I do when shooting natural light that I think will be helpful in getting started. 

Ditch The Strobes. Seriously. I know it's a difficult idea to wrap our heads around, but to be honest, we'll never learn any new techniques if we keep falling back on what we're comfortable with. Try it once and it'll suck. Try it a few times and it'll get better. Give yourself a month or two worth of shoots, and I promise you'll be wondering why/how you ever lugged all that extra gear around.

Look for an area of open shade: Obviously the easiest way to go about shooting natural light. If the light surrounding the area is bright enough, then what you’ll have is a pretty sweet natural light studio. Combine this with a natural reflector like a building with light colored walls and/or a city street made from cement, and you’ve got all you need. This is a concept which, I believe, warrants it's own article, I'll cover this fully in the next coming weeks. 

Embrace  Overexposed and/or Blown Highlights: It’s a taste thing, really. To me, it sets a mood because when you look at a photograph which mimics how we see in bright sunlight, it pulls you in (at least, it pulls me in). As a lifestyle photographer, this is important because you want to capture not only the moment, but the mood so that your views feel as though they’re right there in the photo. If you’re doing anything in the sun, blown highlights are a fact of life. Embrace them. 

Shoot Whenever You Want (except between 10-2). Nothing makes me question my life choices more than getting home and seeing photos that I took where everyone has a serious case of raccoon eyes caused by the direct overhead lighting. It’s totally avoidable, of course - if the sun is too high in the sky, don’t shoot. Or, if you absolutely must shoot at high noon, find an area of open shade that will completely shade your subjects. 

Shoot Wide Open. Pretty much that. I have a comfort zone which I like to stay in, but I'm going to cover that in a full article in the coming weeks. 

Overexpose. Shoot to the right. I generally like to stay 1/3 - 2/3 above proper exposure. Mess around with it a bit, see what looks good to your eye.

Underexpose. Shoot to the left. I generally like to stay 1/3 - 2/3 below proper exposure. Once you bring the files into Lightroom/Photoshop, you can dodge and burn your way to some great looks.


Learn How to Post Process. Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw and to a much lesser extent, Aperture, etc. They are your friends. I failed miserably in the beginning because, quite simply, I didn't know what I was doing and relied too heavily on plug-ins, presets, and actions to get the look I "wanted.." 

Don’t Listen to Others. Despite that’ I’m writing this here now, what I’m giving you isn’t a how-to, nor is it a formula for getting good results. These are steps for getting my results and someone may try this and decide that it looks terrible and immediately default back to their own thing. That’s fine. My point is, you have to explore. Break away from the conventional, traditional way of shooting and step away from what “everyone” considers good photos. Learn the basics and then close your ears to what everyone says about what you’re doing. 

Listen to Others. Sometimes the best advice comes from the place you least expect it. My approach toward photography was forever changed due to a conservation I had with a friend at 2am via Facebook messenger. He told me my work looked like a “poor man’s version of…” one of the photographers I was emulating. It hurt to hear that, but in hearing that and looking upon my work with a critical eye and a new perspective, I realized he was right. Had I not had the conversation? Who knows. I don’t like to think about that. 


That’s pretty much it. I’m sorry if this is a bit disappointing because I don’t break down my shots down to their technical details, but to be honest, I’ve never really been good at that and if you've been following, you already know that the last thing I am is a technical shooter. I do hope, however, that this does help answer some of the questions that I’ve been getting lately in regard to my natural light shoots. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comment section. I’ll do my best to answer as best I can. 

Thanks for reading! 

Models: Amy Scott and Holly Parker

John Schell | Instagram | Vimeo | Facebook 

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Great article and great pointers! Too much hate is given to people who are "natural light" photographers. Many times the thought is that if you are using natural light, you don't know how to properly light a shot....

Sean Shimmel's picture

Agreed. Yet it's funny.. I've come to see it in the direct inverse!

Jaron Schneider's picture

Though using strobes does have the benefit of teaching you a full understanding of what light does, taking that knowledge and applying it to natural light really can work wonders for your photography.

John Schell's picture

Agree. I'm not discounting their use or place in photography, I'm just saying for me, it was a mess and I don't believe I truly found myself until I gave them up and went back to basics.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Agreed. And on top of it... strobes so often feel constricting. Like painting a canvas with rawhide gloves. Joe McNally crafts beautifully natural work but strobes so often seems clinical. The goal is certainly not to tear down one "camp" over the other, but there's certainly plenty of room for confidence and pride in natural lighting. As for learning lighting patterns via strobe... feels almost like an oxymoron rendering Rembrandt lighting with strobes.

Sean Shimmel's picture

John, I celebrate your radiant work, straightforward writing mixed with humility and your "divergence" from the strobist community... while still taking the high road and not at all bad mouthing.

A good photographer should know how to shoot both with strobe and with natural light and also know when to use one of the other. Natural light tends to have "deader" eyes in the photos with very little or no catchlights as you see in the samples given here. I tend to shoot with natural light and use off camera strobe very lightly to add the vibrance of color and catch lights that come with using a strobe. So, the natural light as the primary light and off camera strobe as the secondary light source... use you can use both at the same time!

The photos shown here are very beautiful however, the colors are very dull, there are no catchlights in the eyes which tend to make the subject look very "empty". A little off camera strobe as a secondary light source would have added a little boost the the photos. The trick to off camera strobe is to make it look like natural light. that's the way it is supposed to be.

Jaron Schneider's picture

Wow, 150% disagree about "the colors are very dull, there are no catchlights in the eyes which tend to make the subject look very "empty"."

Catchlights add the spark in someones eyes. That's where that phrase comes from, by the way. catchlights provide the eyes with depth and shape. The photos above, particularly third and fourth ones are great examples of how no good catchlight leaves the eyes looking dull. The whites of the eyes look grey, and the eyes have very little life to them. A little catchlight, even from a reflector will add that spark that would bring the eyes to life more. Anyone who shoots strictly natural light is like a doctor who only uses a stethoscope to conduct all his medicine practice. No style of photography can do it all. No natural light, not strobe by itself. A good photographer is a master of light and will use whatever means are needed to get the proper lighting. As a photographer, you are responsible for ALL the light in a photo, and every part of that photo. That is your job. That is what you do. There is no way you can shoot everything using only natural light. There is just no way. And on the flip side, those who think that strobes are always the answer are also mistaken and snobby. The answer is use the means needed in any given situation, be it natural light, strobe light, reflectors or whatever... and what is usually the case, a combination of techniques. True professionals understand this. Anyone who says all natural or all strobe is just not being truly professional. However, catchlights are almost always a good thing and in my estimation, very much needed. Just really look at the eyes of the third photo. Come on, really? Those eyes look rich and alive and are as amazing as they could be? They are dull, dark and flat. That is my point.

not everything has to be always rich and alive, i actually like the subdued expression and look

Every photograph that I see in this article contain catchlights. They're larger, less intense and less uniform than what you'd expect from strobes, and every single one of those qualities is entirely subjective as to whether or not they improve an image.

Often when shooting with natural light and all light is coming from an overcast sky directly over head, there might not be adequate light in the eyes and eye sockets look dark. However none of these images demonstrate this.

It seems to me like you're assessing these images solely on a technicality that you believe makes for a good photograph, without regard for the photograph as a whole.

And why exactly must "A good photographer" "know how to shoot both with strobe and with natural light"? The article states that John has photographed with off camera flashes on location and that he also works with flashes in the studio. He says that he prefers natural light, I believe it suits his work and it's his decision to make. A "good photographer," makes good images. How he or she chooses to create them is irrelevant.

Amateur photographers have a difficult time with just using natural light let alone balancing it with strobes( and I am not talking flash on camera). As photographers we all know that 35mm is looked upon as a hobbyists camera. We were not even allowed to shoot 35mm in art school because it is such a flat plane format and distorts. This separates those who shoot "headshots" to those who shoot commercial ad campaigns for ad agencies. On location I usually have 4 Speedotron 4800 packs, so bring it!

Prefers Film's picture

Wait. What!?

I love lamp

Are you just looking around the room and naming things you see?

I never really go into an outdoor shoot knowing exactly what the lighting will be like (an idea maybe).. I use OCF on a "as needed" basis, and with tools like ND filters and high speed sync, some incredible effects can be achieved... with that said, they're not always needed, however I think it could hurt someone by calling/limiting themselves a "strobist" or natural light shooter strictly

My problem with a lot of people when shooting natural light is they over use "shooting wide open", though. I almost find it as a crutch just as much as it is a "style".

I would love more info on your techniques...look forward to more, but can you talk a little about the set up for that last shot? The light looks super soft, was this in the shade or at sunset? Thanks!

James Nedresky's picture

John, ok, i totally admit that you're a very, very good photographer. I've been holding off on this for a long while, but I just have to ask - is there a reason you choose to only photograph cute sexy young models to make a point in your posts?
I'm sure that you could do justice to ANY subject matter, but what's with the constant young girl thing? More hits on the web?
No, I'm not gay, a right winger, religious, against very cute young girls or any thing else that relies on being judgemental for some cause. I'm just curious.
Ok, I really don't expect a response, it's just something I always think about when I see your posts. Saying you appreciate the beauty of young, sort of sexy models is fine, and what I'd expect. Heck, I do too.

I as well am curious.

John Schell's picture

Well I mean, I could post photos of my dog, landscape photos, and/or any of the men's fashion I shoot. But I shoot lifestyle and swimwear primarily, so that's what I have.

James Nedresky's picture

And that's fine! I was just wondering. You know, viewers positively responding to posts featuring pretty gals and all. In my opinion, it's just a bit more interesting for those who frequently post to show their range. But hey, I don't mind seeing the pretty girls either. No matter, you shoot good shots.

Look at Digital Photo Pro magazine. They don't care about highlighting great overall photography on their covers at all. The vast, vast majority of the covers are pretty girls. They've taken great photographs and cropped out the creative parts and zoomed in on the pretty girl's face/torso and used that for the cover. Everybody does it, so obviously we respond to it.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Your site appears to be a bunch of test shoots. Are any of them paid jobs? Just wondering, not hating.

*birds chirping*

This is a nice article and helps give a voice to those of us who choose to shoot in natural night stand out from people who call themselves "natural light shooters", There's a big difference between not having lights or not knowing how to use them and consciously choosing to shoot without them. I'll admit to using handheld diffusers and a reflector as a fill light as needed, but my strobes are only used for product shots these days. They are a great way to learn about light, but with planning, preparation and skill, you can generally use natural light and it saves a lot of weight, time, lets you shoot in the wind, and for those of us without assistants, it's often the only choice.

Wonderful shots - and I know this is totally off topic, but when I squint at your avatar, it looks like Darth Vader's helmet.

Somewhat of an obvious statement but still worth mentioning... Perhaps John's ability to use available light is a function of his understanding of light in all its ways including his earlier strobist work. Great article! I feel validated and encouraged to free myself up to the challenge of using available light not just to get a simple image but to make a carefully thought out photograph.

"I was smitten by their strobe work and their use of off-camera flash. To me, it was fresh and new and their ability to bend and shape light, combined with their technical and artist prowess, pushed me in every attempt to emulate their respective bodies of work."

Strobes weren't your problem, that ^ was your problem.

Tony Carter's picture

This is a great article, and very encouraging! Another useful benefit of using natural light is that it requires a lot less setup-and-test time, which can annoy both you and your client on the set. Also, the more common strobe/flash setups tend to make your, and/or the client's position limited to within a few feet of the lights, being stuck with the same static background. Strobes and flashes definitely have their place and when MASTERED, can really help the photographer create some powerful images! Using natural light came "natural" for me; studying, buying, testing, using, and becoming frustrated (and monetarily poor) with strobes and modifiers, I've come to a truce by using constant lighting or LED lights, and adding color filters for more creativity.

Clients and potential clients could care less how you get the shots they want, just get the shots that they've recognized that you're capable of getting!