“Kick the natural light habit” This was the title of a video link, which recently caught my ever-alert, photographer’s eye while perusing a couple of social media sites not long ago. I am always game for a new photography trick or bit of advice, so I clicked and found…well…I found inspiration for what has now become this week’s blog!
The video was about 18 minutes long and was posted via a respectable photographer website, so I thought: “I shoot with natural light a lot. Why not take a look? I might learn something!” Well, not so much. It seems what I thought was going to be a mini webinar on photo technique, was in fact more or less an infomercial for some guy’s lens-mounted light ring. And, while I did not finish the video, for lack of interest in the product and lack of patience for my computer to quit buffering every five seconds, I was, once again, reminded of a stigma that goes along with “the natural light habit.”
As any photographer would hopefully tell you, natural light is just as much a part of your light palette as are flashes, monolights and hot lights. However, the phrase “natural light photographer” (which is often used as a promotion tool), is being more and more stigmatized as another way of saying “I don’t know how to use a flash and I can’t afford a studio, so pay me and lets go outside and lean on some trees”.
While I can see where the logic in such a stigma can occur, I can also see the merit in using natural light as opposed to flash or strobes. I don’t necessarily see it as a cop out and I definitely don’t see it as a habit in need of kicking. And this is coming from someone with a flash, backup flash power pack, and my own, monolight photo studio!
In the last week, I have shot two different events. The first was a 50th wedding anniversary and the second was the annual dinner for the Mayfield Graves County Chamber of Commerce. The first was primarily indoors while the second was outside. In both instances, I found most of my best shots were taken with the available room lights or daylight.
Also, in both instances I had my flash handy for when the sun began to set. But I will be the first to tell you, while I know how to use my flash, I typically prefer to push the camera’s ISO and shutter speed limits rather than turn it on. And the reason is: I would rather retain the mood of the event as best I can. And the only way to preserve that mood is to capture the people and places in the same light as you see them.
In a room with low, white ceilings, it is somewhat easy to get your flash to behave in a way that makes your photos turn out nicely. The light bounces, diffuses, and falls all over your subject making, in some instances, a photo which looks as though there was no flash at all. However, in instances where your ceiling is 20 feet tall or is literally the sky, there is nowhere to bounce light and you end up with a straight-on flash shot. And we’ve all seen these where you have several people smiling at the camera, brightly illuminated, and a whole lot of dark space and vague human forms in the background. Now, this photo does not bring to mind the ambience of that event for one reason: Lighting! Lighting is so key to everything we experience. From the way we see things to the way we remember things that you can’t drastically alter it for a millisecond without it completely changing the mood.
For those reading at home, do this: Go into a darkened room where you have at least two lights in different locations (i.e. an overhead light and a desk lamp). Turn one of them on and take a look around. Now, first, as I don’t want you tripping and falling in the dark, turn the other one on and turn the first one off. Now take a second look around. The room’s mood has changed. Shadows are different, objects are lit from different angles and, likely, the hue has become either warmer or cooler depending on the bulb’s characteristics. This is what I am talking about when I say I try to delay using a flash. Sure you get the subject in full light and focus, but it is at the cost of the mood. And, while I see other photographers whipping out the flash and pointing it at everybody and everything regardless of the room’s brightness, I rarely see a resulting image that indicates they have mastered a way to make their photo look “natural” in its given setting. And my first thought is always: In this digital age, with improved camera performance and state of the art photo editing, why would one degrade or further stigmatize natural light photographers and then turn around and “expertly” wash out their clients’ party with a flash? Jealousy of the increasing ease of camera use? A way to discredit and thin the herd of potential competitors? I’m sure there are a variety of reasons, but, if they do good work, let it be!
Now, if you truly are a “natural light photographer” who is petrified around flashes, or simply does not have the finances or capacity to bring in monolights and hot lights, don’t be afraid to move into using them. They can be very helpful even in your natural light settings! And, eventually, you will find yourself in the dark and in need of some serious light. At that point, even I will agree a straight flash is better than no picture at all.