Updated: March 2, 2022
Natural light can only take you so far. A fancy camera with great ISO capabilities can only take you so far. Lightroom tweaks can’t rescue an image from a poor lighting situation and preserve the integrity and quality of the image. There is no way around it – in most genres of photography and especially in wedding and portrait photography, as a professional photographer there will be situations where you will need to know how to properly use an off-camera flash. I love this quote by Mary Marantz ? “Show me the situation where the photographer intended to go all natural light, and I’ll show you the situation where it went wrong.” As photographers, we can be adverse to flash photography because we don’t like the appearance of the flash when it doesn’t look natural. Lacking the understanding on how to make flash look natural can lead to a lot of frustration. I’m here to give you some quick tips on how to make your flash work for you (and not against you) to create natural-looking artificial light.
We would be remiss to not first discuss the characteristics that photographers use to describe light. In understanding those characteristics we will have made the first step in knowing how to control them. The fundamental characteristics of light are as follows: Direction, Intensity, Quality, Contrast and Color.
If you take your flash off of your camera, you are changing the direction that the light is coming from; infinitely making the light more interesting and dynamic… and natural. When you are outside, rarely will you ever see the sun illuminating your subject from exactly the same angle as your camera. This is why using your flash in this setting makes the light flat, uninteresting, and unnatural.
Intensity is how we most frequently describe light as photographers. We often are talking about how much light is in a scene; how bright or how dim it is. When we think of the light coming from a flash we generally think of the intensity as being high (bright). We can adjust the power on our flash, control our exposure settings, and use modifiers (soft box, umbrella, etc.) to control the intensity.
The quality of light is simply how harsh or soft the light appears. This is controlled by the relative size of our light source. Our flash produces very harsh light because it is a relatively small light source. How do we change this? Make the light bigger by using a larger modifier!
Contrast is the difference in exposure between the highlight and the shadow. It is how bright the whites are and how dark the blacks are in your image. To make this super simple: the closer your subject is to the light source the higher contrast you will have from the highlight to the shadow side of your subject; conversely, the further your subject is from the light source the lower the contrast will be. Be mindful that a significant trade off happens when we move our subject further away from the light source – this makes the light source appear to be smaller? affecting the relative size of the light (quality of the light) and the intensity of the light.
Picture your model standing right next to a window in a large empty room and 10 feet across from the window is a white wall. He is turned facing you, with the right side of his face illuminated by the window light and his left side completely in the shadows. Your model now takes several steps away from the window and the contrast between the right side of his face to the left side of his face lessens and becomes more even. This happens because he is now closer to the white wall which is reflecting the window light back on the shadowed side of his face. This solved our contrast problem but the trade off is that we now have less intensity and quality of light. To solve this problem we need to bring the wall closer to the window, to reflect the light back onto the shadowed side of our model, hence we use a reflector, bounce card, or second flash to manage the contrast.
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We’ve all dealt with icky color cast. Green reflected light from the trees outside of a window, green fluorescent light shining from the office in the background of your image, the warm orangish glow from tungsten bulbs…. We’ve all been in mixed lighting situations where we have to prioritize where to set our white balance and there is really no good solution when only using ambient light. Mixed lighting will make us all just want to throw every image into black and white! However, there are many times when that isn’t an option. Setting up your flash in those situations is often the only solution to making the light appear clean and natural. Flash does this by blocking out and overpowering the ambient light. I’m about to oversimplify this in five steps. By no means is this a comprehensive way to make flash look natural; however, it is an excellent place to begin to feel comfortable with your flash. Ok, so go grab your gear and something to photograph! Then follow these steps:
- Put your flash on a light stand to get it off camera and make the direction of the light appear natural.
- Depending on your camera settings, either power up the flash or dial it back to control the intensity. Do you want to use the available ambient light or do you want to overpower it?
- Choose a large modifier to make the flash a larger light source and to diffuse the light. (My favorite is the Profoto Deep Parabolic 41″ Translucent Umbrella).
- Move the flash close to your subject so the relative size of the light is large in comparison to your subject.
- Use your reflector and bounce the light back to the shadowed side of our subject to manage the contrast. If there is still too much contrast, lessen the intensity by powering down your flash. If there is still too much contrast, slowly pull the flash away from your subject.
Of course this is just ONE method that you can use to create natural looking light. The best way to make flash look natural is to create artificial light that mimics natural light, or at least could plausibly be coming from a natural light source. The key is to practice until you feel really comfortable. I really can’t emphasize this enough! If you want to consistently create natural looking flash – practice, play, practice, play, and practice some more!
Like most photographers, I love window light. It’s natural, it’s dynamic, and often extremely flattering. The problem? It is often not bright enough for me to get the quality of image that I would like, meaning that without adding artificial light I’d have to crank up my ISO. Instead of re-creating the window light, my favorite go-to method is to simply add to it. Often I will put a flash and large translucent umbrella right in front of the window, brightening the intensity of the light. I will then use a large reflector to manage the contrast.
The image below was taken in the early evening, completely lit using flash. My kitchen is on the east side of my house and in the morning sunlight pours through my glass sliding doors; however, in the afternoons and evenings my kitchen is dark when the lights are off.
I wanted my image to look like it was taken in the morning verses 5pm in the evening, so I set up a flash and a 41″ translucent umbrella on a light stand outside of the sliding glass doors. First I had it inside the doors, but even dialed all the way down on manual there was still too much contrast for my liking, so I pulled the flash back from my subject (put it outside the glass doors). And since the subject is fairly close to the white wall directly across from the light, the light is also bouncing off of the wall and illuminating the shadowed side of this image, making the light appear natural and diffused.
In conclusion, pay attention to the characteristics of the light. The more you study light, observe it, the more you will know how to recreate it. What direction is it coming from? How intense is it? Is it coming from a large or small light source? Is the contrast high or low? Does it have a color cast? Then break out that flash without fear and go create some beautiful lighting!