My Problem With Natural Light Photographers

My Problem With Natural Light Photographers

Every time I hear a photographer state, “I’m a natural light photographer”, it can carry a suggestion that they are a more honest type of photographer, better attuned to reality, and purer in motive. What I hear is, “I haven’t learned to use my flash.” This may sound harsh but I can’t help it; right or wrong, I want to call them out on it. It is time to question why natural light shooting has, in many circles, become the more virtuous form of photography.

Often I read these descriptions about wedding or family photographers on their websites. After introducing themselves as an easy going individuals, they promise that their shoots are natural and free of flash use, preferring daylight only. It is a positive message, almost like a healthier choice for you and your loved ones. It sells the idea of authenticity but I suspect it also allows some photographers to work within their comfort zone.

I actually understand the appeal of being a natural light photographer. What could be better than just using what is there? There is less set up time, less gear to carry and the resulting images can be absolutely stunning. They don’t need a studio and the photographer can focus on their subject rather than work out why a light trigger isn’t working. People are also more relaxed without a flash popping in their faces. Often, I do entire shoots without pulling out my flash. However, it is not the selling point of my work. My aim is to make the best image I can, for myself or my client, and this may be achieved with just daylight, with flash or a combination of both.

Shooting in natural light may not be as romantic as it sounds. Searching for that elusive golden hour is not a guaranteed outcome and depending on the time of year, a very hurried process. Sometimes the rain comes and you have to relocate the shoot indoors. I've seen situations like these send many photographers into a panic, and suddenly the label of being a natural light photographer becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Having a few lights on hand can save the shoot; I often joke with my clients that with my lighting gear, I can make it whatever weather they like.

jason-lau-fstoppers-problem-natural-light-photography

Natural spot of light filtering through some street signs gives this image a cinematic feel.

Sadly, flash has become a dirty word, especially in the field of portraiture, weddings and street photography. It has become the unwanted flavour enhancer in the minds of some photographers and their clients because of the perceived artificiality, conjuring memories of bad 80s family portraits. Being able to shoot well without it is almost a form of deliverance from evil.

Often these feelings are formed when a photographer has had a bad experience with using their flash gear. The poor results are blamed on the troublesome technology and this naturally leads many to claim that natural light photography is superior. Unfortunately this conclusion denies the photographer a broader range of skills that could help them work better in a wider range of situations and styles.

 

The Problem with Flash

The greatest misconception about using flash is that it is used solely to illuminate something. For anyone new to using flash, the set up mostly consists of pointing the light directly at the subject and hoping for the best. What results is normally a photograph that looks like it was taken in a dentist waiting room. The light is flat, unflattering and will send you screaming into the reassuring arms of an afternoon sunset. One of the main reasons many photographers avoid shooting with flash is because they panic after the first bad shot and abandon this technique soon after.

Carly-Jason-Lau-fstoppers-problem-natural-light-photographers

Photograph lit with a speedlight and Photek Softlighter from above right.

For any photographer looking to use flash or other forms of lighting, it is vital to remember that this light is used to shape the subject, direct attention, create mood, and simulate lighting that otherwise doesn’t exist. You could create a sunset where there was none. Good lighting techniques often end up looking like beautiful natural light, helping you take control of a scene rather than be overwhelmed by it. Developing experience in flash techniques along with having a reasonable understanding of light modifiers should be par for anyone wanting to offer their services as photographers.

One of my favorite examples of how flash lighting can completely transform a subject is the sublime work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia depicting Hollywood hustlers, shot on location in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His careful placement of light and the use of colored gels create a beautiful depth in his images, leading the viewer’s eyes through his composition while drawing out his main subject. His use of flash lighting may not be the dominant quality of his work but it would not be as powerful without it.

 

What We Can Learn from Each Other

Lighting, in any form, is a visual language that should be learnt. It takes skill to be a natural light shooter, to examine a scene and know where the best place to shoot from is and how to make the most of what you see. I have learnt from these photographers to chase that magical beam of light streaming through a gap in the window, or to move my subjects to a more favorable location, instead of trying to overcome bad light with a truck full of gear.

I also value the hours I’ve spent experimenting and learning what my lighting gear can achieve. It allows me to say yes to work where other people might decline because it’s not something they shoot. Watching countless YouTube tutorials and working with other photographers, I’ve learnt that lighting is not as scary as it seems and eventually it feels quite natural.

It is not my intention to value one type over another, but I do want to highlight this tendency for photographers to define themselves by something that is not necessarily a quality. It is worth examining the reasons why some photographers label themselves, “natural light photographers.” Is it an excuse to avoid tackling more difficult lighting techniques or a clear philosophical decision that directs their artistic vision? Whatever the reasons, we shouldn’t let such labels cripple our own creative development. It is enough to call yourself a photographer whatever that means.

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103 Comments

Chet Meyerson's picture

There are two types of photographers; natural light only and those who use natural light. In the case of the natural light only types, your assessment might be correct. On the other hand, I think every great photographer has shot images with natural light only. It's one of the type of lighting that is available to them. Right along with studio strobes, speedlights, continuous light and probably more. They are able to use the light that suits the type of image they are seeking. Understanding light and how to modify it it the art. Relying on only natural light all the time is not the sign of a well rounded professional photographer (IMHO).

LOL. Since when did it become admirable to be "well rounded as a photographer? I thought we were supposed to be good photographers...however you get there. I am one of those people who says, "I'm a natural light photographer." Or "I never use flash." When asked why, I will readily admit that I don't know how to use flash, and I will never learn how to use flash. I'm lazy. I admit it. I spent years learning how to shoot film in manual, using only the light available. Digital cameras with awesome sensors make it even easier to shoot without a flash. It works for me. As a documentary photographer/ photojournalist (whatever you want to call it), flash photography and all of the equipment that goes along with it, is a hindrance. Its hard enough to lug two cameras and a bag through a village in a developing world or on a tiny boat in the Riau Archipelago. I don't need to be carrying all that fancy-assed equipment and shoving it in the face of some ebola victim.

Aleksander Michaud's picture

I honestly believe if you say you do one or the other exclusively, you're limiting yourself in an extreme fashion. Do whatever the situation calls for when it calls for it.

Great article, Jason. I definitely give you props for being brave enough to address this, I imagine this comment section is going to get a little crazy.

Mike Buongiorne's picture

You should say "organic photographer" that will appeal to all the hipsters and kale eating types.

Lol! It's like, "I shoot with GMO-free light only". "Free range light, baby!"

Greg Taillon's picture

That might've been funny if—it weren't so pitifully ignorant of the realities of pesticide-managed produce.

Mike Buongiorne's picture

Way to take a stupid joke out of context and make it all about yourself...

Sandor A Marton's picture

Natural Light Photographer = Bio Photographer :) (Free from any Artificial)

Mike Buongiorne's picture

You should say "organic photographer" that will appeal to all the hipsters and kale eating types.

i'm also a gluten free photog. or some call it "solar assisted".

Antonio Cuellar's picture

There are only two type of images. Good and bad. If a photographer can make it work either way. Good for him. A lot of artists get caught up in labels but at the end of the day it is clear when an image is great an it is certainly not dependent on the type of lighting.
Well done Jason.

Justin Haugen's picture

I've heard someone say they are available light photographers. If there's a light available, they use it.

Greg Taillon's picture

To be clear, though, in the industry this term ("available light") is *usually* synonymous with "ambient light", no?

Justin Haugen's picture

are you really unclear on that?

Greg Taillon's picture

No—"to be clear" is just a turn of phrase. I bring it up for others because you're not using "available light" in the most common sense I've seen it (which is not one as literal as you make it out to be):

"In photography and cinematography, available light or ambient light refers to any source of light that is not explicitly supplied by the photographer for the purpose of taking photos" — Wiki

Justin Haugen's picture

I think it was pretty clear it was a joke, no?

Ralph Berrett's picture

A long time ago someone asked me, "if I used natural light"? I said, "I use light naturally". Which most my generation of shooters say. When I hear a shooter say they are natural "light shooters". I see red flags and hear, "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger". For the most part I translate "Natural Light Shooter" as someone who can't use flash, meter, shoot manually and can't shoot difficult lighting conditions.

I had this conversation once with a "Natural Light" shooter. Basically even if he use flash and knew photography he was pigeon holing himself.

Part of the reason I laugh at this I come from it as photojournalist where you had to be able to shoot, in any condition and be able to do EP and formal portraits. To be able shoot in bright daylight or a dark gym. I still remember the light for a typical office building, high school gym, or an NFL game. They might as well say I am a lens photographer I only take photos with lenses. ;)

Lol....great article but the Facebook page of this is taking a hammering.

Anonymous's picture

Great article. There are natural light photographs, but there is a name for strictly natural light photographers- snapshotists. Maybe tourists.

When someone tells me they're a vegetarian, I want to slap them with a steak. Should I slap natural light photogs with a strobe?

Tatjana Kaufmann's picture

So you are basically saying all what she does
http://www.ljhollowayphotography.com/
or he does
http://www.kccphotography.net/
(or so many skilled and talented natural light photographers out there)
is "creating snapshots" and you want to get violent?

Can I see your own work please?

Dan Ostergren's picture

He's just trolling. Don't let him get to you.

Pato Villanueva's picture

Give that slap to yourself for having such a small mind.

Ralph Berrett's picture

This one my favorite articles I am sharing with my friends.

Christian Webb's picture

Thanks for posting this. I KNEW I couldn't be the only one with the same thoughts. I have commented previously in various forums...FStoppers group on FB or wherever, about so called "natural light" photographers. Now, I have ZERO issue with some of these dudes, and, quite frankly, I respect and even like some of their work. But I think it's misleading for them to keep promoting themselves as..."natural light" photographers when in reality, they're shooting with natural light yes, but their so called light is really more a result of their awesome photoshop skills. I think some of them think it makes them more....skilled somehow. "Look at me, i don't NEED flash!" lol. I respect ALL work.....whatever that final image is...so long as it's a great photo....I honestly could care less how you got there. Iv'e seen several examples of the "natural light" type of dude where the BEFORE shot...is pretty...blah and worthless. YET....some photoshop work and the image is taken to new heights. I think that may be a whole other topic though. Anyway, I digress. Really....each type of photographer should respect the other. There's no one better way to get the job done. Circumstances as well as individual style call for different techniques, gear and all. It's PHOTOGRAPHY....."drawing with light..."....not NATURAL LIGHT or ARTIFICIAL LIGHT. Just...LIGHT.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Photographers are so quick to judge others for doing things differently from what they believe to be the right way. We choose how to define ourselves, whether it be through film, digital, retouching (or lack thereof), the brand of camera or lens we use, the type of light we use, and even the type of subject we photograph. Judging photographers or taking issue with their choice to shoot in a certain type of light no matter their reason for choosing to, just seems foolish to me.

ALEXANDER TARDIF's picture

This. x 1000. That was a bit pretentious, no?

Dan Ostergren's picture

Very.

marc osborne jr's picture

Was counting on the Dan response! Huzzah! Dan is a phenomenal natural light photographer who was once a phenomenal strobist.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Baby you treat me so fine!

Percy Ortiz's picture

Who's this guy ^ he's everywhere :P