To Flash Or Not To Flash... That Is The Question

If you're in the market for a photographer, one of the first things you'll encounter is some marketing themselves as "natural light only" photographers. At first glance, that seems a bit noble, maybe somehow superior. In this article, however, I'd like to dispel some of the natural light vs flash myths and show you the difference so you can make more informed decisions on what YOU like. In my opinion, a professional photographer should be able to do both.

(Click on any image in this article to enlarge it for better viewing. The header image of the couple at sunset was a two flash set up, one left, one right.)

Natural sunlight, no flash, perfect conditions!

First off, let me state that photography is VERY subjective and what is pleasing to one person is not necessarily what any one else prefers. I personally have a preference for well lit faces, and high contrast, vibrant images. I like my whites to be white and my blacks to be black. I like my subjects to be the main focal point and pop out of the scene. I don't like muddy, underexposed skin, over exposed backgrounds or shadows in eye sockets. Thus, I early on set out to master using flashes.

Sunset, flash used

Natural light only, hazy morning

To expose faces properly when shooting natural light only, what usually ends up happening is over exposed backgrounds. It's actually a popular style right now in wedding photography. It's a very bright, airy, almost washed out look that works well in sunny locations with lots of reflected light. At its best it can look ethereal and quite lovely. At its worst, it creates underexposed faces, muddy skin tones, and washed out, hazy images

After sunset, flash from right.

After sunset, natural light only, but a touch of flash would have added vibrancy.

Some photographers tout themselves as "natural light only" photographers, as if natural light is somehow better than just plain ole light, regardless of the source. The real truth is that those photographers are either intimidated by using flashes (and yes, flashes definitely add a great deal of complication) or they don't want to deal with all the extra equipment. That may even be their preferred style of photography. But it's severely limiting for artistic expression and professional growth.

Natural light w/kiss of flash

Natural light only

The problem is that "natural" light is very seldom where we need it, when we need it and in the direction and intensity we need it. As a professional photographer you end up being extremely limited by shooting "natural light only." Any experienced photographer loves natural light and maximizes it fully whenever possible... while also being fully willing to add, shape  and even color light from any source to fit their needs. The four photos below from Michael & Amy's lovely wedding ceremony on Waimanalo Beach are perfect examples of this need for additional lighting beyond ambient/natural. 

Flash from left

Flash from right

Flash from both right & left - see shadows. Notice the lack of sunshine.

Two flashes, one behind them at camera right, one in front of them at camera left.

If you closely at their photos, you can see that there was no sunshine at all... while the sky overhead was mostly clear, there was a big dark cloud to the west completely blocking the sun. That left Michael & Amy in a very flat, boring and lusterless light which would have resulted in lousy photos if I tried to shoot their beach wedding in natural light only.

Sometimes when shooting fast and furious, flashes aren't always able to keep up and miss a shot. The two images below show the striking difference being able to add light to a scene can make. The camera settings were exactly the same for both images, which were taken two seconds apart, the flash simply didn't fire for the second one. Which image would you prefer?

Natural light with flash

Natural light only, no flash

Flash gets a bad rap when it's not used properly. The most common way flash is used badly is when it's "on-camera." This means the light from the flash is attached to the top of the camera, thus directly in line with the camera lens, which creates a flat light on your subject with no subtle shadowing. This is considered "non-directional" lighting.

Directional lighting is when the flashes or light sources are "off-camera" and not on the same axis as the camera lens. Sonali's sunset maternity portrait below is a dramatic example of directional lighting. As you can imagine, you'd never get such a stunning image at this time of day/night with natural light alone.

Sunset maternity portrait. Sun has fully set to the left, flash coming from far right.

Sometimes on-camera flash is the only way to get good light on your subject in fast moving or low light conditions. If they're careful, a professional photographer can still get great results, it just takes a lighter touch to add just a kiss of light to lift the shadows and make their skin and clothes pop. Here are two examples where I used on-camera flash to get the results I wanted. Grandpa's face would have been entirely in shadow from his hat without a touch of flash.

The other reason a photographer or client may want to use flash is because you can create more dramatic effects. With off-camera flash you not only have more choices of where and when to shoot, but you also get the chance to make your subject stand out from the background better. The human eye tends to gravitate to the brightest part of an image. If the sky or background is the brightest part of the photo and not the subject, that reduces the impact, beauty and power of the photo.

While preparing for a shoot with Zhanna, a lovely bride from Russia, I took a moment to ask her which style she would prefer. I took these two images below to show her the difference between using flash and no flash. The light was good enough to shoot natural light only. However, it left the background as bright or brighter than her. By using flash, I was able to emulate the same direction of the sun, but by lowering my exposure settings, I darkened the background and made Zhanna pop of the scene better. In this case, slightly underexposing the background added depth, contrast and drama. Neither image/style is right or wrong... because the natural light at that moment and location was good, it all came down to a stylistic, personal preference. Which do you prefer?

Which style do you prefer? Zhanna chose the flash.

I hope you found this article informative and perhaps even entertaining! There is a time and place for natural light only photos. Its just been my experience that I so rarely get the light I want, where I want it, when I want it. That frustration led me early on to embrace mastering flash photography and I love the freedom it gives me. Being limited to shooting natural light only at all times would be like being asked to build a house with only a hammer... you can only do so much with a hammer!

Enjoy the rest of the example images below and please leave a comment as well!

-Bodhi

Double flash set up, one left of camera, one right.

Natural light only.

Natural light only.  :-)

Natural light only.

Natural light... with a flash in front of them.

One flash, camera left

Natural light only, no flash needed.