The other day my wife and I were discussing, in a round about way, portrait photography. She mentioned a photographer that many people she knows have used to take portraits of their children and/or family. My wife pulled up this photographer's facebook page to show me some of the photos presented there. This particular photographer stated that they were a "natural light" photographer. It got me to thinking what this means, and whether or not that was a good thing.
My first thought when I hear that someone calls them-self a "natural light" photographer is that they don't know how to use flash. Of course, I have to admit that this isn't necessarily the case. Perhaps they do know how to use flash, but have chosen not to invest in the equipment. Then again, maybe they've invested in the equipment, but choose to not use it, thinking that it over complicates the process.
Often times the term "natural light" can also be used interchangeably with "available light" or "existing light". Generally when someone uses these terms, they are proclaiming that they do not use any artificial light sources, or anything to contribute additional light to the scene that is already there.
If done right, this can be an effective lighting solution. Unfortunately that's not always the case. True masters of "natural light" use any number of light modifiers including, but not limited to, reflectors, diffusers, scrims, and flags.
What I saw in the photos of this particular photographer, and many others, is much different. (I can't provide samples of their work here due to copyright laws.) In many cases the eyes are obscured by shadows. Other issues that I noticed are very contrasty lighting situations, or unbalanced lighting. Part of this is also due to poor location or time choices. The opposite problem is also often seen, that of flat or low-contrast lighting.
Earlier tonight I went for a walk with my young daughter. We went up to the local school, where I grabbed a few quick shots to demonstrate the difference between "natural light" and flash photography, before we were chased back to the house by the rain.
Now, we made this trek to the school on an extremely overcast day, meaning we had very even, flat lighting. In many ways this is the better choice of "natural light" to use.
Here are some advantages of using flash over natural light:
Brighter eyes - arguably the most important part of a portrait.
Better color and contrast.
Ability to adjust background exposure independently of the subject.
While this was a quick photo session, I hope that this helps shed some light on the differences in lighting. When I have a chance I will do more comparison photos in different lighting conditions, hence the "Part 1" in the title. Which lighting do you prefer? Is "natural light" really a selling point?
The photos in this post have received very similar processing. Any major difference were obtained in camera, which was the point of this post.
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