Natural vs Artificial Light Portraits

People like things that are natural better than things that are artificial. After all, don’t you prefer to see “strawberries” on a list of ingredients rather than “artificial flavoring” and “red dye 40”? So, when someone introduces themselves as a natural light portrait photographer, it really does sound pretty impressive. Or, does it? [insert your preferred dramatic musical interlude here]

It is true that low-angled sunlight is hard to beat for portraits. However, great natural lighting isn’t always available. Portrait photographers that use only natural lighting are at a big disadvantage in my opinion. I have seen the portraits by natural light only photographers and find the lighting is often pretty bad. Although not true for all, my suspicion is that quite a few of these photographers are simply not comfortable using flash.

I think that in the majority of cases you can get better results by bringing in flash to your outdoor portraits. Let me give an example of an image that would have been basically ruined without the help of artificial lighting. The following back-to-back images were taken on an overcast morning, both with and without flash.

No flash and no processing

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

I think almost all of us will agree the image using flash looks much better. In fact, without the flash, I would have probably tossed the picture due to the flat, boring lighting. There are three reasons the artificial lighting contributes so much to the image:

Reason 1: Better separation between the subject and background. The flash on the subject makes him stand out against the background. In the shot without flash, the subject’s face is darker and basically blends in with the rest of the image. Even with some post-processing adjustments, it doesn’t look as good. Starting out with good lighting is better than trying to create it in post-processing.

Reason 2: More contrast. In the pictures below, I cropped the same images to show only the subject’s face. Notice the lighting on the face looks much more dramatic and seems sharper. This is due to a greater difference in luminance between the light and dark areas of the face. This makes the subject more interesting to look at.

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

Reason 3: More control over the power and direction of light. With natural light, if you have great, low-angled lighting, you still have to position your subject to take advantage of the light. This gives you less options for what your background will be. Or, if it is overcast, you get soft lighting with little contrast as in the above example. Artificial light can mimic the sun, or even overpower it, and allow you to have much more control over the light, such as changing its’ direction or using multiple light sources.

Granted, if I had chosen an image taken in beautiful, low-angled light, the situation would be different than the above example. And there might be cases where the soft light of an overcast day is preferred. So, then what is the point of this blog? Here it is… Before you go down the natural light only portraiture route, learn how to use artificial light effectively. You can then decide whether to add artificial light when you want or deal with the constraints of natural light. Having seen the benefits of artificial lighting, I’ve gone with the first option.

Editor’s Note: Notice that I showed good judgment in not ruining this blog by ending it with “but I’ll still take strawberries over artificial flavoring any day!”