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.


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.


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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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 ;)

Dan Ostergren's picture

I think advertising ourselves in certain ways is a way of defining ourselves, and to me defining myself as a natural light photographer because I prefer it that way makes sense. My issue with this whole topic is the crowd who refuse to acknowledge that they're making huge generalizations and judgements based on what they think is right. If someone wants to define themselves as a natural light photographer, a 50mm lens user, a strobist, or whatever, let them. I just don't see the big issue.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Of course it is generalization. Judgmental? I think in funny way, yes. I don't see here controversy though. It is, however what my judgmental mind think when I read or hear that someone title him/her self as natural light photographer. No issue, just subjective opinion.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Judge away then. :)

Anonymous's picture

The problem with this article is the headline. It's misleading and until you read the article (which is very well written and I'm in total agreement) it looks like you're about to hate upon anyone who uses natural light. Hence the angry Facebook posts from folks that probably haven't read the piece. A bit Click-Bait-y?

erika szostak's picture

So true. I always hear the same translation in my own head, i.e. "I'm a natural light photographer" = " I have no idea how to use flash & am scared to try."

I like how one of the related articles is about gorgeous natural light portraits :D

All light is natural.

Taking a step back, there is another point to consider. What is the motivation behind using a flash in a lot of photographs? Was there another light source that was being mimicked by that strobe? A lot of what we base our artificial lighting decisions on is the look of naturally occurring or practical light. Whether you are able to achieve that look comes down to more of a matter of budget, time of day, weather, and the problem solving ability of the photographer over labeling a style according to some photographer's polarizing creed.

Certainly there are styles of light that are not based off a naturally occurring phenomenon. I agree that the term "natural light photographer" is more for marketing and less about a style. I also think that a lot of good flash photography draws its inspiration from a natural light source. Why else do companies sell the infinite number of shapes and sizes of modifiers?

The popularity of the Strobist (and others like him) have made off-camera flash lighting superfluous. It's starting to look like just another gimmick.

That's just a neutral cultural observation. My personal view is that there's nothing wrong with using gimmicks when it comes to making money, impressing friends/relatives, or just plain having fun with a camera .

Andrew Merefield's picture

The problem with this debate is it focuses on where the light comes from rather than looking at where the light falls. Some photographers know how to use light and some people who don't. Unfortunately, there are a group of people who mistakenly believe that using natural light means you don't need to learn about using light, just like there are people who believe that a good camera will make them a better photographer.

The blame lies with the lack of understanding and all photographers should be trying to educate the people who don't understand what it's all about.

I love seeing wedding photographers that say they are natural light photographers, it makes me wonder how they shoot weddings; even the best location have marginal light at dusk and forget about it at night.

99 out of 100 times when someone calls themself a natural light photographer it means they are new and don't understand how to control light. Sure you can control natural light but that's not what most people (That I have spoken to) mean when they say they are a natural light photographer, what they normally mean (whether or not they admit or realize it) is that they don't know how to use flash.

True enough, "Natural Light Photography" is, for many, serving as a glamorous-sounding cover for not possessing photographic lighting skills.

However, there is no shortage of photographers who are just so enamored with "strobism," the process of setting up and triggering lights, that they never pay much attention to the way the lighting actually looks on their subjects: Flat, non-directional lighting? No problem. Hard-edged shadows cutting into a portrait subject's face? No problem. Dark eyes? No problem. They simply follow some lighting formula and have faith that it will produce good-looking photographs.

Furthermore, since many people start their pursuit of "serious" photography by using artificial lighting, some of these people never actually learn to "read" light in a scene. As a result, they have absolutely no ability to shoot in uncontrolled conditions; outside of a studio they resort to novice-like snapshottery.

Percy Ortiz's picture

I'm just waiting for Michael Jackson to appear with the popcorn :P ;)

These are the kinds of articles that make photographers sound stupid, badly educated, petty and incredibly off the grid of reality.

Shoot whatever the hell you want to shoot.

Wanna light it up - light it up.
Wanna shoot in the shade - enjoy.

There are legions of wonderful shooters on both sides of the aiele, and amazingly many (gasp) shoot both considering the type of image they are after.

This is the silliness that drives the web.

Shameful, Fstoppers.

Dan Ostergren's picture

This. I would thumbs up this 1000 times if I could.

hmmm, interesting. I guess i consider myself a natural light photographer for the most part but i use an external flash when needed and I have most of my practice in a strobe lighten studio....I find natural light the most challenging as a portrait photographer. Its not constant, it changes shades, colors, directions...etc throughout the day and season. Natural light is a great practice and I find it makes you much more in touch with your camera as a tool rather than with studio lighting where you get what you set it to, rather predictable if you ask me.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

It is not as predictable if you are balancing strobe with ambient on partially-cloudy day ;)
I guess it is not about tools you are choosing to use as much as about the final image you create.

Kofa Boyah's picture

My problem with people telling other people what or how they should be doing something. See article above. And what Daniel Ostergren said.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

"natural light only photographer" - meaning - "I don't know how to use strobe and I don't want to bother to learn."

Dan Ostergren's picture

Not always. I think that's the problem here; way too many generalizations are being made on this topic.

Tatjana Kaufmann's picture

I don't know how to use strobes and I really don't want to learn. It just isn't for me. And now? Should I stop taking photos because I'm not practicing what YOU call "photography"?

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

You should practice more reading because no one talks about technique or type of light you are using.

Dudley Didereaux's picture

It all boils down to this: If a photographer claims to be one or the other, and condemns the other, then they are not a complete photographer.

Always an entertaining topic. While there are exceptions I do think the flood of natural light photographers does come from the fact that it's (mostly) what's available and lack of experience. I do know some though that are more than capable of both but choose to be a natural light photographer as a matter of style or even convenience; wedding photographers tend to employ more natural light than not.

I am always confused by those that puff up their chests though and go 'oh yeah what about me I'm a natural light photographer and I know studio'. Great. You're probably not the majority. Also, your puffing of the chest might be a little disingenuous if your OOC shots are mostly pretty flat and you are putting in highlights and fill in most of your images in Photoshop where the OCF should have been to get the same shot more closely in camera.

To each their own though. As long as the client is happy, even if that client is you.

After reading this piece, I went to Jason's site fully expecting to see superficial photos of insufficiently dressed women, and stuff, things, possessions, whatever--that category that some people think makes you a winner if you die with more of it. I was not disappointed.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I don;t mind the term natural light (sounds like a beer) photographer.
Why do people have problems with those who do things differently? I thought this was a creative mistake

Sam Bond's picture

When I first started taking photos, I'd use upwards of 7 light to light a scene (think Dave Hill...). I eventually got really bored of that look and bought a medium format film camera. Now I pretty much shoot exclusively on film (Although I still have a full lighting setup which is gathering dust) as I think that natural light looks so much better on film, and also because using flash with film is a bit of a nightmare with all the polaroids etc... Knowing how to master natural light is as much of a skill as learning how to light with 7 flashes. Anyone can stick a flash on the hot shoe, same as anyone can walk outside and take a photo without artificial light. Doesn't mean you will do it well!

Tatjana Kaufmann's picture

True. You have to learn how to take beautiful photos in whatever lighting condition available, just like you have to learn how to use flashes and light former.

Tatjana Kaufmann's picture

This is so simple minded. People prefer different things for different reaons. What do I love about shooting in natural light? I love that I can't create or control light, I love to use what nature provides me and make the best out of it. I just do. Have I to apologize for it?
Of course I respect and even admire people who mastered the art of arteficial lighting. I think it's an art form itself. It is just not what I want to do. And when I have to choose, I almost always prefer the "natural light look".
Look at the work of Lisa Holloway or Jessica Drossin or Kevin Cook. Are you basically saying they are just "too lazy to learn using flashes"? What an attitude...

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