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

Kendra Paige's picture

Fantastic article! When I first started in photography, I looked to a lot other female photographers, and found that a lot of them were self-confessed 'natural light photographers.' Your initial assessment was quite correct for most of them. Flash just didn't fit into the equation, either out of confusion when it came to its use, or a lack of budget in order to get started experimenting.

Looking at my work in the present, I couldn't fathom not knowing how to work with flash. The funny thing is, I've gotten so used to using strobes, that I have to do little 'review sessions' to remind myself about harnessing natural light.

In the end, it's all about one's style and their favored techniques. I'm just glad that I personally left my 'natural light photographer only' days behind me.

Great article! I too have come across many "natural light " photographers in my time. I almost always think "Never learned to use a flash eh?" I think that many photographers think that they have found a way to dodge learning an important part of their craft while still sounding elitist and cool.

I was chided by someone recently when I said that I made a photograph using Natural light.....I used a diffuser and a reflector. They did not seem to like the statement of natural light.

ade adetayo's picture

Jason Lau,
interesting article,
If one defines a "natural light photographer" as an individual who has made a conscious decision not to use artificial lighting (be it for a specific job or otherwise) as opposed to the photographer not having a clue, then things look a little different.

Becoming proficient with natural light is an art perfected over many years of practice.
I'm always in ore of those who can pull off great shots under conditions most people would have pulled out a flash and potentially ruined the moment. i.e. failing to see the light.

British Cinematographers Roger Deakins and Sean Bobbit are particularly effective with natural light.
One could spend a life time studying and still have a lot to learn.

While a useful tool, a flash has many drawbacks, in the UK for instance, it is frowned upon by many establishments. (Churches, Theatres, Conferences, Antie Cynth's living room. etc.

There is also the issue of the technology, which is rather antiquated by todays standards.
Please correct me if I'm wrong, but the reason a lot of the artificial lighting came into existence was because without it we couldn't get proper exposure (i.e. slow film).
Now we have much better technology, Im not entirely convinced we need so much lighting gear, unless of course, one is using artificial lights for artistic expression.
In that case, you can should consider the "Natural Lighting gang" as simply doing the same. i.e. artistic expression.
Like the great artists of old and the new age cinematographers I would suggest a lot of beginning and experienced Photographers spend much more time studying natural light. Of course learning how to use a flash is also a worth while endeavor, but not always applicable. Even Hollywood has caught on to using the ability of the new generation of sensors to shoot with less or no artificial light, where appropriate.

Jason Lau's picture

Thanks for the points you've raised Ade. As stated in my first few paragraphs, if we could just rely on natural light, that would not necessarily be a bad thing at all. But I also mentioned that thinking about using flash only as a form of illumination for dark scenes is limited and we could extend our understanding of flash lighting as a tool for shaping, describing, balancing and creating different moods. The whole slow film thing was solved in the film days with better quality fast film and bright lenses. There are many examples of National Geographic photographers using available light with film to great effect.

I am more than happy to shoot with available light when I can and I maintain that working with natural light takes a lot of skill. Citing situations where a person can't use a flash does not help a photographer learn how to use flash to improve a scene, when the situation allows.

Mostly, my article is addressing the misconception that using a flash is some sort of evil where it would "ruin the moment". Studying natural light does not have to be done in exclusion of other forms of lighting and learning to use other forms of lighting does not have to diminish a photographer's ability to use available light. It may even help them understand how to work with available light better, which it has for me (that's a topic for a future article).

Having worked on various film sets, I can guarantee you there are whole lighting teams working with many forms of lighting to create "natural" looking scenes, even shooting at 4000 ISO. Once again, it's not about illumination, but using light to communicate mood, space, atmosphere... etc.

ade adetayo's picture

I think we can both agree, using flash is neither good nor bad. It really depends on how it's used and the skill level of the user. (for best results, flash requires a reasonable amount of time to master)

I appreciate the point your article is addressing, the misconception that flash is evil and would "ruin the moment". It makes a lot of sense you should point this out. It's a good article.

However, in publishing the article it would be great not to inadvertently create new misconceptions, i.e. so called "natural light photographers" are clueless. (I'm sure that wasn't your intention) . As you pointed out, many aren't. Others are. Depends on skill level and preferences.

I would like to point out many (not all) "flash users" are incorrectly using flash and are actually ruining the moment. This includes amateurs as well as very experienced pros. Thats where the initial misconception your article is trying to battle came from.

The practice is particularly prevalent among wedding photographers.(not all, just some, who have come to the conclusion, to be a "real photographer" one must be well versed in the use of flash, and use it everywhere....)

Like many endeavors in life, the use of flash is a skill that stands alone, as is the use of natural light. The combination can be exquisite.

Given the amount of time needed to master several parts of photography, it isn't that ridiculous to choose to master some parts not others. (due to time constraints). I think a lot of so called "natural light photographers" fall into this group. (I wish they wouldn't belittle flash photography)

Personally, I rarely use flash, why... I shoot a lot of video as well, given we tend to shoot around the same time, it is much more efficient to use continuous light. Do I consider myself a natural light photographer? no, not really, I'm a pragmatic photographer. I try to use what works, within my budget.
(good flash systems aren't that cheap, the opportunity cost has to be weighed against other equipment, another lens, filters etc)

Unless you can tell the difference in the end product, would be difficult to justify doing otherwise.

My overall point is, deciding to not master one part of an art, while unfortunate is not necessarily bad. It leaves time to master other parts much more thoroughly. Too many photographers are stretched too thin in the race to be a "real photographer".

Of course if you run reasonably priced courses in flash photography you may end up getting a lot of converts from the "clueless". :) Everyone wins.

Gentle Assassin's picture

I'm a low-light photographer. I believe that "flash photographers" wear their handicap as a crown, and they have never learned to navigate through unpredictable elements in their atmosphere like National Geographic photographers do. Yes, I said handicap. "Flash Photographers" are slaves to the technical and "plastic" nature of photography, it takes real skill to abandon the false sense of control, and learn to run parallel with the elements that surround you. A great example of flash photography handicaps are the photos you are showing in this article - notice how the model must remain in a specific area, destroying her ability to share an authentic expression of life and emotion. That's what flash photography forces you to do. Sure you can blow a little artificial wind to create motion, or ask her to look aimlessly at nothing, but no "high quality" photo can compete with an image capturing authentic interaction with ones atmosphere, emotions, and model (muse).
Technology allows us interact with our subjects and environment more freely, and technology is only getting better. Better learn how to shoot low-light or natural-light OUTSIDE of a artificial setup, or you will be left behind.

That being said, if I had to work on a commercial project I of course would use lighting. It's not that I NEVER learned how to use lighting - I would rock the world of any local photographer with lighting - it's that I don't want my subject and my vision to be another high quality photo of lifeless "deer in headlights".

See examples of my work here: https://www.facebook.com/GentleAssassinArt

ade adetayo's picture

Gentle Assasin,
I have looked at your work, very nice.
I agree with the substance of your text, however I think you are making the same mistake as Jason Lau. Labelling....
I do agree there are some of "flash photographers" who use flash as a reason not to learn to use/harness natural light, and there are "natural light photographers" who choose not to learn flash.
Without getting tribal about it, this is perfectly normal.

The amount of work to become an expert in either is substantial. To become conversant in both can seem an herculian task.

If one's intention is to start to produce quality work rather quickly (paid or otherwise), it makes sense to specialize.
I maintain this is nothing to be ashamed of.

Athletes, academics, business people and martial artists all specialize, some quite early on, to allow high skill levels in chosen areas. The issue with far too many photographers is, they try to be everything to every one and end up being.... well... mediocre in all.

Such people want to be considered "real photographers". So shoot Nikon or Canon, must have all the right lenses and must be able to shoot both natural light and studio.

On either side of the debate "flash" or "natural" (not a real divide in reality). The real issue is improving skill level, in what ever one chooses to specialize.

On average, I'm not sure which side is the most skilled, my guess would be about the same. A small percentage of elites, 10% quite good and most people sort of average and spending too much money on gear.

Pato Villanueva's picture

Natural light, artificial light…both require to be mastered to create unique, memorable images. If you find your way in one or another, or both, good for you. I know photographers who wouldn't know what to do without their flash..that's being in the comfort zone pretty much. Other have a ton of gear and still all the do is crap. My point is…if you produce successful images why should it be a problem how you get them? I think this article reveals a certain level of insecurity, with all due respect.

I often see photographers taking photos that are washed out and seriously devoid of color saturation. They use the term 'natural light' as an excuse for their lack of understanding of lighting, color and saturation. This drives me out of my mind.

Jason - I'm always puzzled why there always seems to be several groups photographers who have issues with the other groups of photographers in a disproportionate way.

When the digital sensor became pretty good, maybe around 2006, 2007, the digital vs. film debate heated up, mostly fueled by the digital converts. And usually followed up by "film is a dead media walking" and will be almost gone by 2010. Well that didn't exactly happen, though, of course digital is probably 99% of the market. It was always the digital guys that were and still bent out of shape from film and it's users.

Then the debates about JPG vs. RAW were the next big argument. I really don't care where anyone stands on this. However, there isn't a soul alive who can discern 16x20 print and tell me or anyone if it started life out as a RAW file or JPG Fine image. There are too many professionals who shoot JPG and make 6 figure livings, not to mention pretty amazing work to objectively neuter the argument based on practicality. True RAW has the potential, not the guarantee of a technically better image, but not necessarily. But it's always the RAW diehards with the loudest and most passionate voice on the matter. Why? Insecurity?

Then there's the Strobist crowd. You know, the guys who can "light". Yup the ones who have skillfully wielded 2-3 speedlights, or 2-3 strobes and accompanying modifiers to create their masterpieces. Yea, these are the guys who have elevated to the big-boy game and can make magic happen all the time. The "block and reflect" crowd simply does not have the technical savvy, nor the artistic vision to light, so they settle for the breadcrumbs of the sun and maybe a $25.00 36" reflector to make their images. Poor souls. Oh yea and they must rely on the "golden hour"...really Jason? That has got to be the cliches of cliches..

Don't get me wrong - I have tremendous respect for Joe McNally, David Hobby, Joel Grimes among others. And I LOVE studio light. Not to bad myself, though my game has a way to go. But in my years of photography, the best photographers I have met and been around always make great pictures with ambient light. They are without a doubt the most resourceful and talented. "Well rounded" doesn't mean employing every major technology at hand, but to make a variety of situations good despite challenging conditions - and that means more than just light, but of location, compositions, how well you work with those you shoot, etc. Those are the talents of great photographers, not whom has $1,000.00 worth of Nikon or Canon Speedlights in their bag.

I once assisted a TTL Queen who knew "how to light". She told me so. A lot. So, her main skill was me shadowing her couple down the sidewalk with the SB800 on a stick, while she shot them with a 300MM from afar..I am sure after 40 or 50 frames she got one that looked ok. I did see a few in the back of the camera and well, yes TTL did <em>it's<em> job. We had coffee after the session at Starbucks and I asked her if she knew who Jose Villa was. "No" she replied, and I began to tell her...before I could finish she smugly blurted out, that "those who are ambient light shooters simply do not know how to light". As if Jose took a Creative Live class in studio lighting his whole game would change for the better? LOL. TTL Queen on one side Jose Villa on the other. Who's the real photographer? Her ignorance was larger than the 300MM Nikon prime she was carrying around.

I shoot digital and film. Ambient and strobes. Mostly JPG fine but on occasion RAW. We can find beauty in all types of light, good and bad if we let go of the "pretty and polished" ideal that the modern day digital universe tends to heap on us. With due respect Jason, most ambient light shooters are looking for something more important than mastering off camera flash. I realize with many, modern photography's sun rises and sets on the digital full frame 35mm sensor, mostly accompanied by little OCF. It is this community that typically has the most inane and insecure people putting down others who don't shoot like them. I find it silly for you to feel upset about it. But I will give you kudos for stirring the pot!

Richard Avedon did his "In The American West" series with primarily open shade for light. He also shot masterpieces with strobes fired into umbrellas. But he had a real affection for "natural" light. That should tell us something.

Nomad Photographers's picture

You're absolutely right but what a hassle to carry lights around with the wires, batteries, modifiers, tripods. Hopefully technology will soon come up with more powerful portable lights !

This article speaks truth whether it's liked or not. With that said, I am grateful most photographers stay away from using flashes and claim to be natural light photographers as it has helped me separate my work from the typical photography portfolio. If you want to make more money doing photography, push your skills further. If you love natural light, stick with it.