An example of natural light photography in which there is a little drama from the sun, in this case not so much on the subject. The light on the subject is soft and flat, but she is backlit and the flare adds a nice effect.
I hear it often, a photographer proclaiming to be a “natural light photographer.” Usually, the claim is made with a sense of pride, as if it is somehow nobler to catch the light than to make it. And to be honest, I bought into that for awhile, despite my own draw toward flash and strobe. But now I feel that the reasons to shoot in natural light have nothing to do with being noble, and neither do I believe natural light photographers are inherently better photographers, though it is absolutely true that all great photographers are masters of light, whatever the source.
First a definition: Natural light is the sun, plain and simple. Being a natural light photographer means knowing where the sun is going to be at any given time, and how the quality of that light changes throughout the day. The sun is a great teacher, the mother of all light. If your subject and the sun meet at just the right angle, it is magical, but if you cannot bring these together (or catch them together), your photography is dull and lifeless. There is no doubt that this challenge is what draws many of us into photography. It starts like a grand scavenger hunt – find the light, capture the light. And sometimes be heartbroken by the light. Eventually, every photographer will discover some simple truths that allow a repeat performance. A predictability of circumstances begins to emerge that make it possible to know which photographs are possible (and when they are possible) and which ones are not. It is this catalog of circumstances that distinguish a good from a not so good photographer in natural light.
At some point, however, I came to realize that natural light is not the same as available light. We live in a world awash with un-natural light. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for photographers. On the one hand the abundance of electric light has caused the design of many buildings to be dark, harsh, strangely colored places that limit sunshine. On the other hand, the use of lighting in the environment can be interesting and creative, and it definitely extends the hours of our lives deep into the nighttime where no sun shines in any case. This un-natural light is part of the ambiance in our lives. We expect it, and our eye has become attuned to its presence. What that basically means for a photographer is that it is possible to add light to a scene that seems perfectly natural in our daily lives. But doing that means becoming a lighting designer, not just a light finder.
The true distinction between a natural light photographer and a photographer who uses flash isn’t really in the photography so much. Photography as an activity is so vast, that lighting style becomes a way of setting the parameters of your work. Every photographer has to understand his or her camera, and every photographer has to understand light. But which sliver of light you work with can define your look, when you work, where you work, and what you shoot. If you are a “natural light photographer,” you are done when the sun goes down, and frankly, I think that’s the best reason to claim that moniker, so that you know what you won’t shoot. For those of us who just call ourselves photographers, we have to make that decision by some other means.
Let me be clear, I did aspire to be a natural light photographer for a time, but I love playing with lighting technology and have started using it enough that I no longer need to remain in the realm of natural light alone. I have done photo shoots in cloudy, miserable weather in which I would have loved to have had two more stops of light. I don’t mind working indoors in dark spaces because I love mimicking a window when there isn’t one. I love not having to push my ISO up into grainy territory to get a little extra speed. More than anything I love getting a photo that has color I can live with straight out of camera. And I absolutely love being able to turn around a situation in which I’m stuck with imperfect lighting and make it better, make it beautiful.
A few examples of situations in which I couldn't have gotten the shot without flash:
This photo would simply not have been possible without flash. There was very little light here, and to me the drama of the mom's face was the most important factor.
There were windows here, but because it was stormy and raining, they were mainly creating difficult reflections. The light level was so low that I had the choice between a ridiculously high ISO or using flash to imitate what the window would have looked like, which I did.
This photograph was taken after the sun went down. But the couch was lovely, and the action was fabulous. So I quickly pulled out a flash and made this happen.
Honestly, probably 90% of my food and botanical photos are done with artificial light. They are great to shoot when the weather is bad or when I simply want to control the look by providing my own light.
Keeshi Ingram is the founder and principal photographer at Adaptive Camera, an Austin, TX based studio offering location and assignment photography services for companies and nonprofits. Her work is often used for marketing, PR, fundraising and social media. To learn more about Adaptive Camera, please visit our website @ AdaptiveCamera.com, see Keeshi’s portfolio @ Keeshi.com, or follow her on Instagram.