There’s no phrase I dislike more in the photo world than "I’m a natural light photographer." Believe me, I love natural light more than anything. It’s simple and easy to work with, and you don’t need to worry about bringing a ton of gear with you. But very rarely will just unmodified natural light work. It’s the unfortunate truth of photography (unless you’re a landscape photographer, you lucky bastards). Most photographers will use a flash to do what natural light can’t. Sadly, many don’t use it to great effect. If you want your portraits, or any image with mixed lighting to look better, there are a few key things to keep in mind when you’re on location.
Flash, or even continuous lighting for those in the filmmaking industry, serves one purpose: make the natural light better. I think that the photography world has forgotten this point with all of the high-speed sync nonsense that’s been floating around. While high-speed sync is an amazing tool to have, you shouldn’t use it just because you have it. If it’s the style you’re going for, you do you, but high-speed sync is really meant to be one of many tools that you’ll use to achieve a natural portrait. There’s no one better at creating natural looking lighting than Joey L. If you don’t know who he is, I urge you to comb through his website and blog, both of which are full of some wonderful imagery and insight. Studying his work was one of the ways I found inspiration for on-location portrait lighting. His book, which has some great insight into his lighting and on set experiences, can be found here.
Look at Natural Light
A natural looking light set up requires you to know one thing: how light acts. If you’re shooting indoors near a window, you likely already have good light. It might not be bright enough, or you may need to fill in your shadows opposite that window. Take a few photos without a flash or reflector and evaluate the ambient light to see what you need to add or subtract before needlessly throwing lights into the situation. A common mistake I see beginners make is to use flash just for the sake of using flash, even if they don’t need it. The portrait of my friend Nick in front of the white board is a great example of this. The image below, however, placed his face in deep shadow in comparison to the back of his head and the window, so I needed a flash to balance the exposure and augment the overhead lights in his studio.
Use a Light Meter
I covered the importance of owning and using a meter in a previous article, but I’ll stress on it again here. I understand that digital cameras have histograms and screens that let you see exactly what you’re doing as you shoot, but your images will dramatically improve once you see why the image looks the way it does. It’s like learning to play songs on a guitar rather than learning the musical theory behind playing a guitar. You might be able to make a pretty picture, but you don’t know why, and you won’t know how to make it better.
Don't Be Afraid to Have More Ambient Light Than Flash
This will likely come into play in indoor situations more than outdoor, but I see this mistake made a lot with people who have just unlocked the joys of high-speed sync. When we see people on the street or in a coffee shop, we don’t see them in a spotlight surrounded by an almost middle of the night ambient exposure, we see them exposed as we see the rest of vision exposed. If you’re shooting a portrait on a street corner, try keeping your ambient light near what the meter says, and use your flash for a little fill. High-speed sync can help to isolate the subject from the scene, but going overboard with it will often be distracting. Don’t be afraid of ambient light.
Use Soft Light
For these sorts of images, we’re augmenting natural light. Using a hard light source will create obvious, distracting shadows, and won’t cover enough area. Using a large modifier like the Elinchrom 53-inch Rotalux Octa (one of my favorite modifiers of all time), or the Westcott 7-foot Umbrella (another favorite of mine), will allow you to light large scenes without drawing attention to the fact that the light isn’t all natural.
Experiment In a Variety of Situations
The hardest part about getting out of the studio with your flash is that every situation is different. Ambient light is never the same, and no space has the same colored walls, or even the same size room, or even windows. To best prepare yourself, find a friend, and drag them around to a few locations and experiment. Keep moving your light around as you shoot, experimenting with angles, and the relationship between the power of your flash and the level of ambient light that you’re allowing. The more you try in these stress-free situations, the more you’ll be prepared when you have a proper subject who isn’t keen on sitting around while you grovel with your equipment. Once you have the experience, creating these dynamic images in a real situation will be much easier, setting you apart from other photographers still stuck on that dark ambient light look. Portraits tell a story and understanding how to work the light in that setting to tell the story will take your portraits to the next level.
If this article was of interest to you, I highly recommend checking out the new Clay Cook tutorial that was just launched this week on Fstoppers. Clay has been creating stunning on-location portraits for years for a variety of print and web clients. The tutorial has 12 hours of in-depth video content covering lighting, postproduction, and even business theory for portrait photography.