Every coin has two sides, and today, we're going to take a look at the natural light side of the lighting conversation. Here are seven different reasons why I think that natural lighting for portraits is pretty damn rad when compared with using flash.
A few days ago, fellow Fstoppers writer Craig Beckta listed seven reasons why he feels that flash is the way to go when you talk about portrait lighting. He raised some great points and really generated a lot of conversation about the use of flash versus available lighting. Today, I wanted to offer up the other side of the conversation and play devil's advocate on this particular subject. I'm here to say that I prefer natural lighting and break down why it's my preference and go over some of the advantages and reasons why you should consider your available light before you think about flash.
Natural light looks real; that is to say that it feels natural to the viewer rather than artificial (no duh!). When you want your portrait lighting to look and feel authentic, it makes a lot of sense to go with what is actually in the scene, natural light. While not always the case, sometimes, people can tell when artificial light is being used, and this can lead to a disconnect for the viewer. If the brain starts to wonder why the lighting looks the way it does, it may alter the intended mood of the image.
From an equipment perspective, working with natural light is way easier than lugging around flash gear and modifiers. This one is pretty self-explanatory: if you could carry just a simple camera bag around or carry your camera bag, flash heads, light stands, flash modifiers, and battery packs or extension cords, which would you prefer to do? Not to mention that if you're at a public location, the use of anything other than your camera itself may not be allowed or may draw unwanted attention to your shoot.
3. Reading Light
Working with available light forces you to learn to read the light around you and can open your eyes in new ways to things you see everyday. You'll literally be training your eyes and brain to see the quality of light for a given scene, which can lead to a new appreciation for your surroundings.
4. It's a Classic
Window lighting is as about as tried-and-true as you can get; it's classic for a reason. Renowned classical painters and artists from history would mimic window lighting in their work for a reason; it looked real. While they were limited by the availability of things we take for granted today (like electricity to provide artificial light, for example) they opted to mimic the way window light falls on the face and body in their work, and those same patterns and techniques have stuck around for hundreds of years.
Natural lighting catchlights look hands-down amazing. The colors, the feeling, the emotion, and the real reflections of the scenery in the eyes are a hard thing to beat. Have you ever seen a bright blue sky complete with clouds reflected in someone's eyes? Good luck recreating that with a strobe.
Reflectors are an inexpensive and valuable tool you can use to help sculpt the light in your scene. While there are certainly some more economical options when it comes to flash equipment, you're not going to find something that is both as inexpensive and as versatile as a trusty old 5-in-1 reflector. Need to sculpt the light in your scene with either warmer light or more specular highlights? No problem, use the gold or silver material. Looking to bounce or cut down on bounce light from one direction? Use the white or black material. Need to turn a hard light into a soft and flattering light source? Yeah, there is scrim material too. You can find this basic tool in the neighborhood of $20. What kind of flash equipment can you get for $20?
If you like a soft, blurred background, you may run into trouble with strobes unless you're looking to invest in HSS options. A soft background for portrait work is understandably iconic: it keeps the focus of the image right on the subject. Working with natural lighting, your factors that determine this are your aperture (open up wide for the sweet, sweet bokeh!), your focal length, and your distance from both subject and background. If you introduce a flash to the equation, you need to be aware that you'll need either a flash that can potentially fire at a very low power level or a flash that can operate at high speed sync with your camera (not all flash equipment can do this).
Bonus Reason 8. Time of Day
You get to spend more time at sunrise and sunset and generally chasing genuinely beautiful light. If you're wanting to work with super-beautiful natural light (dare I say a golden light?), you'll get to spend more time admiring a sunrise or sunset. If you've ever wished you could see more sunsets, try spending a summer shooting outdoor portraits in a sunny locale. Hard to beat a warm hillside bathed in beautiful golden light every night.
Now, it's time for a few concessions, because like all things (including flash), natural light isn't without its own shortcomings, and I'll be the first to admit that nothing is perfect. First, you're definitely limited by daylight and what light is available to your scene. When it's nighttime, you're not going to find yourself shooting incredible portraits in the dark using just a wide aperture and a super-high ISO; sorry, but that's just not going to happen. And second, there are different kinds of light setups that you can do in a studio that would be incredibly difficult to mimic using purely natural light. Take colored gels, for example: that's a look that you're just not going to be able to recreate with available light.
What do you folks think, do you agree or disagree with the reasons I've listed? Also, know that this isn't so much a debate as it is simply additional information at your disposal. I've shot all the images you see in this article on my D750 camera using either my 85mm or 50mm lens and using only the available light in the scene. Neither flash or natural light is certifiably better than the other, and I think that it's important for people to try both and understand that each has both advantages and limitations. Furthermore, your own personal preference is paramount, and no one is trying to convince you that one approach is correct and the other incorrect. As long as you're out there creating what you want to, you're on the right track.