Natural Light vs. Flash

Monday, September 14th, 2015

This year I wanted to add a new dimension to my photography and a new tool in my creative tool belt.  After taking a workshop with one of my favorite photographers, Scott Robert Lim, I decided to invest further in my education of off camera flash.  If you have been following my posts on Facebook and Instagram, you might have seen some dramatic bridal portraits that have incorporated flash.  These portraits and the flash set ups used add a sense of depth and drama to the image and the wedding day.  (I actually did a video tutorial explaining an image I created using flash, which you can check out here.  The set up is simple and the gear isn’t too expensive for the effect it creates.)


Today, I took some senior portraits for a friend and found an opportunity to use flash again.  Many of my portraits and wedding day shots are taken using natural light; however, when the situation presents itself (and I have a few extra minutes to set up the gear on a wedding day) I will bring in a simple lighting set up.  Let’s take a look, step-by-step, of the lighting, the gear used, and the final product.  Below is a photo in natural light.  The small stream and large rock located in it presented a great opportunity for a nice portrait.  Luckily, he was adventurous enough to wade out there without any shoes for the shot (thanks Dane!)

Senior Portrait


Not a bad shot, but there could be a bit more separation of the subject from the background and it would be nice to fill in the shadows from his brow.  Wanting a little more pop to the photo, I put a flash with a simple octobox modifier to camera left, dialed in, and got this shot:

Senior Portrait in a stream


Ok, closer but not exactly what I was looking for.  We got the separation between him and the background a bit.  I liked how the sides of the photo have more of a vignette to it, but now we have more shadows on his face because it is just one light.  I couldn’t have him turn more to his right since it would look uncomfortable, and I couldn’t move the light to the right, closer to the camera because of the stream.  Instead, I filled in the shadows with another flash, powered two stops below the main light and shot through an umbrella to get this image.

Senior Portrait Rochester in a stream

This, I can be happy with.  The subject now pops and stands out from the background, the light is concentrated more on him than the rest of the foreground, the pose is masculine and the smile is genuine.  This is a framer that mom would be happy with.

Let’s compare side-by-side to see the difference.

Side-by-side comparison of natural light and flash

Right now, being a “natural light” photographer is all of the rage, as if it is more of an organic way of shooting.  Am I a natural light photographer?  95% of the time, yes.  But there are opportunities when bringing in off camera flash produces a more appealing and classic look than natural light.  Every photographer who is comfortable knowing, using, and controlling flashes can be a natural light photographer, but not every natural light photographer can be a flash photographer.

All of the images are straight out of camera, meaning that no touchups or Photoshop has been done to them.