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.
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.
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.