Natural Light Versus Off-Camera Flash for Portraits: Which Is Better?

There are several debates over which type of lighting is better between natural light and off-camera flash lighting. Some photographers build their style on one over the other, while some find themselves using both. I believe that it comes down to your personal preference in which you like over the other.

To help you make your decision, Manny Ortiz shoots a few portraits with his model wife to compare both lighting scenarios. The first shot in each set is only using natural light during golden hour, then he changes the exposure for the background only and used the eVOLV 200 TTL pocket flash paired with the  38-inch Glow ParaPop softbox to add some fill light for the model. You can compare the shots below to see which one you prefer over the other.

 

  

  

Directly following the shooting examples, Ortiz goes into the pros and cons of each type of lighting situations. I would like to reiterate, with the misconception of natural light being easier than off-camera lighting, I agree with Ortiz on this one. I guess it depends on how you look at it, set-up is easier but actually shooting in the sun isn’t easier than shooting with strobes, as the sun and the sky are constantly changing, which can force you to adapter your settings and possible setup based on how it is at that given moment. Another minute later and you might have to completely change everything again which can happen multiple times throughout the entire shoot. With off-camera lighting, it may take a bit longer to set up, but once you have everything ready to go, you can just keep shooting until the set is done.

From the examples shown by Ortiz, I personally prefer the portraits utilizing off-camera lighting. However, I can’t tell you which one is better as I use both types of lighting and I believe it comes down to your preference and style. Recently I went through my personal photos to select some of my favorites and two of them were shot using natural light and one was with off-camera lighting. I do suggest you learn both methods and use the right lighting based on your situation, understanding lighting and being prepared can save the shoot if the scenario changes, but it all depends on what the shoot is for. Which lighting style did you like better from Ortiz's shoot and which do you use?

Images used with permission of Manny Ortiz.

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32 Comments

Kang Lee's picture

I personaly prefer the softness of natural light always. It's a matter of personal preference. I hate people that judge others who prefer one to another.

Natural light isn't always soft, it's not even usually soft, and it isn't softer than artificial light can be. It's only soft when the atmosphere is working to soften the sun which is a very hard light source. It becomes soft on an overcast day, if there are enough clouds blocking the direct sun, in shade, sunrise or sunset, or modified artificially such as through a diffuser or a window. Otherwise, natural light is like a really powerful barebulb flash from far away. It's much easier to control and create soft light using artificial sources.

William Howell's picture

I agree with Kang, in that, if you can achieve the desired outcome with natural light, it is the most heavenly of light, but it is so difficult to do and to find beautiful natural light, particularly on a consistent basis, that a photographer must master flash to duplicate the most beautiful of light.
So, to me, you are right on, it is easier to make beautiful light.

Not a pro / con for me. I think some of the best results obtained is a blending of both ambient and flash lighting. Why choose if they are both available to the photographer?
I can always depend on flashes. Not so much with ambient light, but I prefer using both in combination whenever possible. Good article. Thank you Alex and Manny.

Robert Nurse's picture

At my current stage of ability, I find the mix more fun because it's more challenging. But, I always like the results.

Michael Kormos's picture

Seeing as how 9 out of 10 photographers:

A) don't understand flash
B) don't know how to use flash properly, and...
C) are afraid of flash..

..what's "better" is subject to your level of comfort and experience. For all intents and purposes, flash is clean, reliable, and offers you full control. Something natural light never will. You don't have to worry about color cast from grass and trees, because flash will always render skin tones correctly.

Unfortunately, it's not always the most feasible lighting method. OCF requires a modifier, a stand, a power source, and because the apparatus is large and subject to being tossed around by wind, an assistant is usually needed too.

In your article you use a professional model as subject - one who is stationary and listens to direction. Many genres of photography don't have the luxury of working with such subjects. Children, pets, wildlife, etc. don't care where your key light is, and in which direction they need to look. So even if you're a pro at OCF, it's not always a good choice. It also lacks the "mood" of natural light.

In the end, what's "better" is whatever gets you the shot you envisioned :-)

Robert Nurse's picture

Not to mention 45-50lbs of sand to lug about. But, I do so much enjoy combining both. The results are practically always breathtaking.

Michael Kormos's picture

If you're not a fan of heavy sandbags, pick up empty sand bags instead. B&H stocks a wide variety. I have a large nylon bag with two empty saddles. I carry it on location, and then stuff it with whatever rocks and pebbles are around. Saved my back in Iceland :-)

Dan Howell's picture

I've survived prob. a hundred location strobe shoots without sandbags. I've dug, wedged, leaned, clamped and roped strobes and stands on location. If you are like me and not working with mono lights, I keep a short loop of rope tied in the handle of my strobe pack and use it as ballast by hanging it on the stand either on a knob or from a clamp. A Profoto Pro7b pack is about 20lbs. Not that I haven't fought the wind, but I haven't had any disasters.

I've had a couple issues in the past when I haven't used sandbags even with my power pack on a J hook clamped to the stand but that was really only in obviously high wind or uneven ground. Stuff that really would take two or three sandbags to stop a fall. A very nice thing about a pack and head system outdoors is that even if it does come crashing down the chances that you'll break something are significantly lower.

Uh... What exactly is the "mood"? The sun is a distant hard source. It can be replicated and has been a million times a million ways for movies, photography, indoors, outdoors you name it. There is no special magic inherent in that light source. To spread the rumor that it has special properties does a dis-service to new photographers. The question isn't is natural light better. The question is will a single light source with already present environmental reflectors allow you to effectively light your subject in a way that will allow you to convey what you've intended to convey?

Well said James. Movies are a great example. Many movies are so beautifully lit many people take for granted that even those shot outdoora and look like they are naturally lit are actually being lit by many artificial lights.

Not really a fair comparison, Her face is mostly short lit in the natural light shots,but is broad lit in the flash shots. To compare you at least need to have the subject lit the same way in both shots. As it is this is not a comparison between two different methods (flash and natural) but two different styles (short and broad).

Bad examples. Taken during golden hour where the natural light is good. What a waste of flash. Take these photos at noon and write an article.

Dan Howell's picture

I suppose you could look at it as a waste of flash, but I would more likely say that it is a poor use of flash. Looking at the examples here and the photographer's portfolio, I have to wonder if this photographer understands the impact that angle of light effects contour a model's face. The above examples are how I would say NOT to do it. Both the natural light and strobe could have been handled much better, even within that situation. You don't have to go to the extreme of lighting condition to point out the differences in the techniques. You just have to execute the creative and technical sides better to illustrate the point.

The question of strobe vs. natural light is an interesting one, but these examples and this video mostly confuse the question. Possibly the photographer could make the excuse that he was limited by his equipment or the situation, but then I would say why make the video in the first place.

He was definitely being limited by his equipment but yes Manny Ortiz should have known that. That adorable little 200w flash is a comically poor fit for something as inefficient as a soft-box in an outdoor scenario. Why on earth he wasn't using literally any other modifier even just a bare head I can't begin to imagine.

Even with the softbox on a strobe like that how did he manage to flat light her in every single photo?

Edit: I just watched the video instead of just looking at the results. Why did he think that using minimum flash power was a good idea?

William Howell's picture

Manny is a good photographer and I like that his wife is his muse, but, (and this is not meant to be disrespectful), Manny is an "influencer."

I think the key to successful flash photography is to first master natural (or available) light photography. Sadly, Facebook groups and internet forums are full of photographers trotting out silly comments along the lines of "people who call themselves natural light photographers only do so because they don't know how to use flash." But then when you look at the work of the photographers that say this, it's often the case that they don't know how to use light and don't know how to use flash, using it simply as a tool to indiscriminately blast the scene in front of them with light, with no regard to why or how they are doing so.

Dan Howell's picture

I would modify and suggest that photographers learn lighting, regardless of source, and the effect that distance, angle, size etc. I outlined some of the ways that I learned lighting in this article: https://fstoppers.com/fashion/create-your-photographic-lighting-style-un...

William Howell's picture

Hey do you prefer location photography or in studio?
I know that is huge range and a very general question.
I follow your work to give me ideas and inspiration and I see your photography is equal quality in or out of the studio.

Dan Howell's picture

Thanks William, I would say that 80% of my work is in a studio and I guess I would say that I prefer it. I don't know that I would choose to divide it 80/20. Location work can be more exciting, but it can also be a lot of work and nerve wracking. I would say that is most cases, studio or location that I do prefer to have a high degree of control of the lighting (if not exactly the light source). For example, I do love to work with large silk scrim overhead, especially if I need to maintain consistency from shot to shot.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

To me the natural light looks like kinda 1970s (Nikon F and Ektachrome) and the OCF looks sort of1990s (Hassy 500c/m Chimera box and Provia). Was there a reflector used in the natural light shots?
Neither look or style seems to be very finished and both could use some photoshop to improve the results. Maybe equalling out the white balance would be a fairer comparo.

I use a lot of strobe, no strobe and just a little strobe depending on the look I am after.

Dave McDermott's picture

For me it largely depends on the location. One other thing I like about shooting in natural light is that I tend to get more candid portraits and unplanned shots as I'm spending more time focusing on the person and less time setting up strobes. I'm not limited by the recycle time of the flash. Sometimes when using flash it can end up looking a bit staged.

Chris Kennedy's picture

It depends on the type of look you hope to achieve, time of the shoot, and the location. You can make strobes even softer then some natural light if you really know how to light and have enough power

This.

frank nazario's picture

I am personally a fan of off camera flash in very few instances i let the ambient light play a part in my photos... if i do it is always using the off camera flash as a reinforcement or even keylight.
Very few of my session was using ONLY ambient light.

Keylight means your primary light.

William Faucher's picture

I do like the Flash shots a tad better, but that's only because the natural light shots haven't been edited at all the same way. Why are the natural light shots clearly a stop or so overexposed, lack contrast and blown-out highlights? That is nothing 30 seconds in lightroom can't fix, not reason why the natural light shots can't look nearly identical with some proper edit. The off-camera flash shots are also significantly warmer, white balance inconsistency?

Richard Soublet's picture

It's certainly easier to make perfect lighting than it is to find it. That said it really depends on the look you're going for. Neither is better or worse, one is usually better suited for any given situation than another.