Mastering All Light: Bringing Peace to the Strobe vs Natural Light Debate

Mastering All Light: Bringing Peace to the Strobe vs Natural Light Debate

Strobist. Natural light shooter. These words are at two opposite ends of the spectrum of photographer that seem like they're always a hair's breadth away from starting a photographic civil war, both sides preaching their philosophy as if deviation is blasphemy. One side is derided as being "afraid of learning to use flash" and the other side is jeered at for creating "flashy," "fake," or "contrived" images. Both sides seem immovable in their adherence to their preferred light source. Despite this disagreement, a popular saying in photography is, "light is light." So which is it? Is one better and the other worse, are they just preferences or are both sides cutting themselves short?

I get asked often by photographers from all sides of the spectrum, "what light do you prefer to shoot in?" I'm always a little bit confused about how to answer that question, so I generally just say, "Whatever light gets the job done." I've found that I tend to use whatever light most closely resembles my vision. Sometimes it's nothing but natural, ambient light, sometimes it's modified window light, sometimes it's natural light with some flash for fill or shape, sometimes it's a bare bulb in studio, and sometimes its a complex set up of several different lights with no natural or ambient light to be seen. When I first started shooting, though, it was an entirely different story.

When I began, almost a decade ago, I shot exclusively natural light and almost always in open shade. It was the easiest and most available light source that required the least amount of effort and gear. Eventually, though, I began to find myself with a similar set of problems: nature wasn't cooperating, or eye sockets were dark, or I couldn't balance the light and so I would lose the beautiful blue skies, or I would lose highlights or shadows. That was when I finally broke and bought my first flash, a Canon 580 exii. All of a sudden, my photos had brighter eyes and I could compensate when I had to take portraits in areas without ideal lighting. It wasn't long before I was shooting constant light in studio, and then strobes in studio, and now I use all light without confining myself.

Portrait with a mix of natural light and flash

What I've discovered on this journey is that learning to master any kind of light leads you toward the ability to master them all, because physics of light remains constant. Hard, soft, diffuse, flat, directional, all of those qualities can apply to both natural and studio light, which means that once I understand the principles, I can work with all light. If I can work with all light, why limit myself? I can have the best of both worlds, and I should, particularly what then very word photography means "drawing with light."

Ultimately, as long as the photographer and clients are happy, that's all that matters, but I will say that there have been times in my career that I would not have been able to deliver as strong a product if I hadn't been able to use a flash or a strobe on location, or bring in ambient light while shooting with strobes; at least, product that didn't require heavy retouching in order to be useable. Let's not forget that the more retouching an image requires, the more money it costs to make. Being as skilled with light as possible will allow a photographer to produce images that require less work to finish and cost less on the back end.

Being competent with all kinds of light has huge advantages for photographers in all genres. Skill with all light allows wedding photographers to work as comfortably in the bright, hard sunlight and in dark receptions as they are during golden hour. It allows portrait photographers to shoot at all times of day despite what mother nature has to say on the subject. It allows headshot photographers to shape light to flatter a specific clients bone structure and face shape. It allows a commercial photographer to shoot product in studio and on location for a campaign. In fact, knowledge of how to use all kinds of light can only be a benefit to photographers, because it expands their proverbial bag of tricks.

One hundred percent natural light portrait

Well, natural light is part of my visual signature, you say. I say, right on! Did you know that natural light can be mimicked in studio, though, for those times when a storm rolls in unexpectedly or your client is 30 minutes late to a shoot and the light you planned has completely changed or disappeared? And, if you don't have a studio, you can easily supplement natural light with flash or strobe so that it's practically undetectable. What happens when you've planned a shoot months in advance and mother nature laughs at your plans?

If you're a strobist, and you look down at your nose at natural light photographers, you might never experience the undiluted magic of large, soft window light that requires no recycle time and doesn't overheat, or run out of batteries, or misfire at precisely the wrong time. You may completely miss out on the incredible ambience that natural light can create in a room, or slanting through the trees on location. Becoming truly connected to your model without the distraction of a flash bulb can allow you to capture moments of undiluted honesty that are hard to achieve with lights between you and your subject.

Once you decide to be a master of light, the question becomes, how do I do it? Well, the cost of external light sources has dropped considerably in recent years, which means that mastery is within the reach of any photographer, and you begin at the same place you started from. You experiment with power, direction, distance, diffusion, reflection, angle to the subject, and all those little things you've learned to do with your preferred light source without thinking about it. The rules are all the same, and the best part is that you're already halfway there, and learning to master all light doesn't have to change your style. You can shoot with flash and make it look natural, or you can shoot natural light like you would use a beauty dish. You still decide how to use the light, only now there's more to choose from.

This portrait series was shot in studio with only natural window light and one black flag to create additional contrast, since the walls of my studio are white.

The simple window light, with a single flag, allowed me to shoot nonstop, which let me connect with my subject, resulting in honest expressions that were incredibly engaging

Natural window light

A contrasty portrait taken with window light

In the same studio space, just days before, this set of images was created using a 3 strobe set up in order to achieve a lighting style similar to that of the dutch master Jan Vermeer.

3 light set up. Key was a medium sized octa, fill from a large photek softlighter, and another octa on a boom above and slightly in front of the model for hair light and to carve her bone structure.

Having access to strobes gave me full and complete control to sculpt the light according to my vision

On the other side of the spectrum, these photos were taken with natural light as rim and a flash for fill from the front. I shot on location in a park. The sun was slightly behind my subjects for that magical rim light, and just a bit of flash was used from the front to keep their faces bright against foliage in the background. This series was designed to look natural, but required flash in order to keep the ambient light from overwhelming the subjects so that they remained the focal point.

Image taken on location with a combination of natural and flash, designed to look more like natural light.

Natural light portrait with fill from the front.


Finally, these images were taken on location with absolutely nothing but natural light. The were meant to feel natural, a bit washed out, and very western in an ode to my new home here in Colorado. The sun was high overhead, but at just the right angle to give me rim light while keeping her face illuminated.

Natural light photo taken on a high meadow just below the Colorado Rockies


Perhaps this desire for mastery of all light stems from my nature as a control freak, but I honestly believe that the best answer isn't to be a natural light photographer or a strobist but to cultivate the ability to do both, so that anything you can imagine, you can create. Want to replicate the dutch masters on a set you've built in studio? You can do that. Want to create something magical on location that feels as if you've stumbled across a real-life fairytale? You can do that, too. Want to capture a jilted lover on the western frontier? Yep, you can definitely do that.

Don't let adherence to a light source philosophy stop you from being able to achieve whatever images you can imagine. There is a whole world of light out there waiting to be bent to your will, whether it's light from the sun, or from a strobe.

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16 Comments

Jay Jay's picture

That reminds me, i need to sand the name off my Matthews apple boxes and stain them. And on a side note, i've never heard of any of the camps arguing over which has the better method? (as in never, since natural light shooters seem to be happy with how they shoot, and flash shooters are content with their methods). Like you, i use what i have to get the job done and to achieve the specific look i'm going for.

Nicole York's picture

haha, yeah, I need to do the same, but if it was a good reminder for you, then it's a win, right!?
Strange that you've never heard the camp arguing, I seem to run into it everywhere! There was even an article here on Fstoppers a few years ago that got some pretty hot debate going.
https://fstoppers.com/editorial/my-problem-natural-light-photographers-5...

Jay Jay's picture

The single most valuable piece of advice i ever received in college was by a professor on a semester-long project, who told me on the first day, "I don't care how you do it, as long as you finish the project by the end of the semester".

In regards to this topic, i dont care how a photographer got the shot, all i'm concerned is the end result. :)

Maybe we should focus our efforts on writing articles like this about using what you need to "get the shot" versus faux debates about which is better? I always felt the debate was tantamount to "What amount of light is better, less or more?" What? That doesn't make any sense! Right. Light is just that... light. It's more important to learn to work with what you have (the light that exists at the time and place you choose to shoot, like most landscape photogs) or making sure you bring with you what you need (lighting equipment: strobes, reflectors, scrims, etc) given a goal (dark skies in the middle of the day, shade on a desert island, etc) and a set of circumstances (weather, location, inside/outside, dark cave, top of a mountain, rain, sun, clouds, day, night).

Jonathan Brady's picture

Incredible article, Nicole. Thank you for sharing it with us!

Justin Rosenberg's picture

Yes, this. Exactly this!! #TeamNicole

stir photos's picture

Amen! I never got (understood) the debate, just not an argument for me. Love the article for saying what needs to be said, and well. Personally, I almost always use a combination of both. But, omg some of the photographers who use only one or only the other are great! Same goes for those that typically use both combined, great!

P.S. I don't know if you've brought peace to the debate, but a good article/effort nonetheless.

Natural light/artificial light, whatever works for you. However if you are a professional and rely on only natural light, the day will come when you have a shoot and the weather craps out on you and there isn't any good natural light, then you will be up the creek with out a paddle.

I'm in Ireland andcrap weather only happens on days with a "y" in them...

I was always more inclined to studio strobes. Not because strobes are superior, but because I'm crappy in dealing with natural light :)

Felix Wu's picture

Always bring a strobe(s). You don't have to use it but when you need it you would enjoy that extra creativity.

For me it just depends on the situation and what i'm shooting. I like natural, strobe, and continuous lighting. What I'm in love with though is High speed Sync. I love the results from using HSS shooting directly into the sun.

Leigh Smith's picture

I never understood this "debate". It's all light, it's all useful.
My guess is that this it's the ego that has a problem with one or the other.

Leigh Miller's picture

...Google Dallas Logan "Light is Light".

A perfect though about not getting too wrapped up in what to use for lighting, but how..and maybe why.

An old and wise photographer put it very well. He described himself as an "available light" shooter. What ever light was available, be it daylight, flash, tungsten etc.