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

If I where to draw parallels to my own field...
- There is those that are great at certain aspects of development, they know it and they brand them self from it, those I like to follow and learn from... It doesn't matter if they aren't great in all fields, because they know it and I know it...
- Then there is those that complain about what all the others do... I some times wonder, what are they actually good at?... and what could they actually achieve if they used all that energy productively instead... And then i forget them...

Dan Ostergren's picture

Beautifully said.

Antonio Cuellar's picture

1

Perfect.

So you can judge the author, but he can't judge your lighting preference?

One of my favorite photographers classifies himself as a natural light photographer, Mario Testino will always opt for natural over using lights if he can. In the beginning of his career he would only shoot at the rooftop studio of the Puck building in NYC that has basically a glass ceiling. These days he is the master of any light he chooses. Its amazing in that he might use more stands to hold black flags while shooting natural light than if he was shooting with strobe.

Erin B.'s picture

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I am a little leery about someone who 'has a problem' with the way others decide to make photographs.

David Vaughn's picture

I don't really have a problem with how someone shoots if it works for them. I don't appreciate unwarranted criticism, so I don't feel justified in dolling it out on the same token. I know some fantastic no-flash shooters (like Dan above)

However, for those who are really great at natural light photography, their use of labels generally does not leak into my interactions with them. It's incidental.

For some others I've met...Thee discuss their process with the expectation that I'm going to give them a standing ovation. They hinge their entire photographic identity on their use of film or natural light, and they want to make sure you know about it.

"I started when I was 8 years old with my grandpa's Brownie and now I only shoot natural light and medium format film." Like, that's great and all. Do you want a cookie?

Then when I don't give them a starry-eyed congratulatory response, their demeanor towards me changes. They become offended or give a look that says "You're just envious."

Those photographers are a minority, but unfortunately, they exist.

I wish my response was this concise and spot on!

Anonymous's picture

I think a lot are missing the point of the article, which is summarized in the first sentence (see: did you actually read beyond the title?)

Maybe: Using flash doesn't make your photos less honest or less pure. Less catchy than its current state, though.

Greg Taillon's picture

Anon, you make good photographic, interpretive, and epistemological points. Nobody acknowledged the writer's argumentative/"thesis" point (interpretive error), nobody addressed the nonsensicality of a *photo* having "purity" or "reality" (hint: it has neither, and "reality" in a photo is a late-19th c modernist myth); and few addressed the issue of subjectivity in evaluating art/photography, though I suspect most are aware of this.

Sara Smoot's picture

Great article! I know photographers who are all about shooting with a flash and others who don't even own a flash and don't like them. The photographers I know who having been shooting a long time and have successful business are the ones who use flashes. Nothing against natural light photographers, I love the look of natural light! I would like to be good at both;)

Dani Diamond's picture

I'm a natural light photographer.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Same. Bring on the H8.

Jason Lau's picture

Dig your work Daniel! Keep doing whatever you are doing. I'm sure I can learn from what you know.

Adam Bender's picture

You've also shot some fantastic portraits with your ring light.

Gazmend Haliti's picture

It is called "Natural/Available Quality Light", not any natural light. On the link below you can see what I mean, because this guy never uses flash unless in extreme dark.

Enjoy:

http://www.cmphotography.com

I'm sorry, but you can't compare two different arts.
On the one hand, you create a lighting with strobes. On the other hand, you need to master the light available.
This statement may sound such as "Strobes are fake and Natural Light are artists". But this is not what I mean. I use both strobe and natural light.
The reality shows us that the first is completely different from the second. Just get used to that.

I think the genre of photographer affects this greatly - this is why most Fashion photographers tend to make absolutely horrible Wedding Photographers - because they rely so heavily on induced lighting that when you put them into a situation where they need to improvise with what's available, their photos are a disaster.

Sometimes i wonder if people like Cliff Mautner read this stuff. He's not keen on using flash, he doesn't like them. So what, is he less of a photographer?!

Anonymous's picture

True natural light photogs also do not use any type of reflector. It is strictly against code.

I myself have dabbled in another rare sect: natural darkness photography, where a model must appear in absolute darkness. It is a very tricky practice to perfect, and the resulting images are very interpretive.

Tiago Costa's picture

Jason, I think you too much stuck on your 'photography for clients'. You have to think as an artist first of all! I know many people that just use natural light and don't know how to use artificial light, you right!... and I know people than just wanted studio and artificial light and after all they don't know how to work with natural scene and natural light. I'm not a natural lighter photographer, I even doesn't know what it means, I think it's a false question. But, I consider myself a naturalistic photographer, using my main light (natural) and my artificial light to shape and help me with my naturalistic ideas. If you study art history, I hope you studied... you'll realize the difference between naturalism and realism, and in our days, the contemporany 'artificialism', I hope I can call that. Let's put the eyes on Gregory Crewdson's work... he wants too create natural scenes, but his dependence of artificial light is huge to create that. In the end, I think that the most important thing is concept and essence. It's just my opinion! Thanks for the opportunity.

Jason Lau's picture

I love Gregory Crewdson's work. Such an inspiration. Yes, I originally came from an art background but I'm also addressing anyone interested in working in a commercial capacity.

We know, you needed a catchy headline. It needs to polarize, create diverse opinion. Create comments and views.

By titling this article "My Problem With Natural Light Photographers" you did exactly what you criticize later on. Using labels to define people. "What We Can Learn from Each Other". There is a binary choice, either you are this or that?

If you don't want people to use labels to define themselves, stop using the same exact label on who you think 'they' are.

David Geffin's picture

Great talking points Jason, and well articulated, i enjoyed this.

On the topic of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, if anyone is interested in checking out his work (and it's brilliant, he is a master) try to check out his hard-to-find but excellent "Street Work" book to see a totally unique stance on flash-lit candid street photography, as well as "Heads", his flash work of candid street portraiture done in a completely different way. Really brilliant stuff.

Doug Hall's picture

There is a time and place for both flash and natural light. But one rarely sees highly contrived and unnatural photos that are lit naturally, while the unworldly seems to be the domain of those who eschew natural light, to wit, a woman in a perfectly lit set indoors with her hair blowing in the wind. Scantily-clad woman dressed in a bikini astride a Harley with smoke billowing and a boa constrictor around her neck, anyone?

Savi You's picture

I'm primarily a strobist. So much so that it's become a bit of a handicap for me. I HAVE to bring my flash/strobes on location for every shoot. The problem is that it can become a hindrance when trying to connect with your subject and having to lug around, setup, teardown lighting for each look. I've started doing less strobe and learning to use what's available.

Daniel Lee's picture

I think natural light can be more convenient which is what makes it more appealing to some. With flash work, you have a lot more variables you have to take into account compared to natural light. The problem with using natural light only is, you end up making yourself so picky when to shoot. because you wait for that dynamic light instead of just adjusting your exposure and using flash to create unique lighting.

I don't use flash a great deal as I don't do many portraits, but I certainly own several speedlights and use it any chance I get.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I don't think this is true. As a self proclaimed natural light photographer, I know how to create beautiful images any time of day if there is available light, even at high noon. It's not about one type of light or the other, it's about mastering a style that you prefer. Even so, if mine or someone else's preference is to shoot in early morning light because we like it, what's the problem?

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

The style has not much to do whit source of light. It is like saying I am "Canon 50mm lens photographer". You can be successful using limited gear however "advertising" it, is more like an excuse or just being hipster ;)