Flash photography vs Natural light photography – which is better?

In the flash photography vs natural light debate, I don’t agree with saying that flash photography is better than natural light photography, or vice versa.

Some photographers prefer natural light and so shoot purely with natural light by choice.

However, very often photographers claim to be natural light only photographers, because they’re intimidated by flash.

If that’s the case, it’s a shame to place limitations on your creativity.

On the other hand, if you’re used to using flash outdoors in daylight and your lighting packs up in the middle of a photoshoot, you have to be able to photograph with natural light only to be able to finish the photoshoot.

It happened to me during a late afternoon urban photoshoot. Fortunately, I was able to switch to using reflected light from windows of surrounding buildings to finish the shoot.

Outdoor portrait with flash and natural light
Photographed outdoors using a combination of off camera flash and natural light

To photograph in any situation, you need to know how to use both flash lighting and natural light. Then choose the type of lighting you want to use on a shoot by shoot basis.

There’s a time and place for flash photography, natural light photography and also a combination of flash and natural light photography.

So to answer the flash vs natural light debate, let’s take a closer look at what I like about:

  • Flash for portraits
  • Natural light for portrait photography

Why flash photography is better for portraits

Moody outdoor portrait with flash and natural light
I shot this in open shade in full daylight with a flash fitted with a beauty dish to camera left. I wanted a dramatic look, so I underexposed the available light slightly and added flash

1. Lighting control with flash photography

Control is the absolute number one reason for using flash for portraits. After all, photography begins and ends with light.

If all you have to do to to start photographing is plug in a strobe light, or put the battery in a flash, to get light, you control the lighting. If you’re in charge of the light, you’re in charge of the look of the photo.

With flash photography you can easily control the quality of the light to suit the mood of the photo and flatter your subject.

So if you want soft light with flash, use:

For hard light with flash:

  • Don’t use any light modifiers on the flash
  • Move the light further away from the subject

Flash photography gives you absolute control over the direction of light. Being able to place strobe lights anywhere, allows you to position the light to suit your subject’s feature for more flattering photos.

2. Flash lets you photograph anywhere any time

This is closely related to number one. If you’re in charge of the light, you can go anywhere to photograph at any time of day in any location, with any background.

Using flash means you’re not restricted by where the sun is in the sky, or if it’s even up.

You could just as easily photograph in a beautiful big ballroom as you could on the beach after sunset. Your only limitation is your imagination and the number of lights you need to create the look you want.

No waiting around for the weather to be okay, like a cloudy sky flattering for portraits vs a really sunny day with hard light. Or for the right time of day for photos when the sun is in a flattering position for portraits.

Outdoor portrait with flash and natural light
I created a two light set upper this portrait using the setting sun for rim light and flash as a key light.

3. Flash light guarantees catchlights

Catchlights in subject’s eyes are really important in portrait photography and you can’t get catchlights if the light is coming from behind a subject. Unless you also use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject’s face.

Flash light is a great way to create sparkly, lively eyes with catchlights.

4. Flash gives your photos more oomph

Because flash lighting is a short burst of light to light a subject and/or scene, flash photography produces crisp, clear photos with saturated colors.

You don’t need to spend as much time editing photos to look great.

Before and after editing underexposed natural light beach portrait
I underexposed the subject so that I didn’t blow out the background and then brightened the subject in Lightroom and darkened the background. However, if you look at the edge of her arm you can see it’s edited

5. Flash photography avoids blown out backgrounds

The whole point of photographing outdoors is for the locations and the backgrounds. The problem with using natural light only for portraits is that, unless your subject is in open shade facing into the light, the background will be overexposed.

Very often, especially in direct sunlight, this’ll make your subject screw up their face to cope with the bright light.

Using flash light solves both these problems:

  • Portrait subjects won’t have to face into bright sunlight
  • You can expose your subject to be equal to or even brighter than your background.

Instantly the composition improves too, because our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of a photo. So if the background or sky is the lightest part of the photo, that’ll pull attention away from the subject, which weakens the image.

Flash beach portrait photoshoot at sunset
In comparison to the previous image, this one was shot with flash and exposed for the background. The colors are richer, the image is more eye catching and it required a lot less editing
Natural light and flash sunrise portrait
I lit her from the front with flash and used the natural light from the rising sun as a hair light

6. Combine flash with natural light outdoors

With off camera flash photography outdoors you automatically have two lights for portraits:

  • Flash
  • Sunlight

So it’s easy to do a two light set up using the sun for rim light to separate them from the background, and flash to light the subject from the front.

Why natural light photography is better for portraits

Edited natural light portrait to brighten face
I used natural light only with no reflector. I then brightened the shadows in Lightroom and used a radial filter tool to lighten her face.

1. With natural lighting you don’t need lights

The absolute best reason for photographing with natural light vs flash is that you don’t have to carry so much gear. Packing less gear is a definite advantage when photographing outdoors!

The only additional photography equipment you might need is a:

You can cut down on your gear further by combining reflector and diffusor in one with a 5-in-1 collapsible reflector. One of the layers is a diffusion panel and the others are white, silver, gold, and black.

Unedited underexposed natural light portrait with backlight
This is the straight out of camera version of the previous photo

2. Fast set up time with natural light

Since when shooting with natural light you have no lighting equipment with you, there’s less of a set up time. The only setting up you need to do for lighting is consider:

  • What’s the direction of the sun?
  • Is there open shade to use?
  • Do you need a reflector or a diffuser?

3. Natural light looks natural (or does it?)

I’ve included this, because many natural light photographers will say that only natural light looks natural, but that’s absolutely not true. Off camera flash can look natural and natural light can look unnatural.

For example, if you use a reflector as the main light to light your subject, but you position it beneath their chin so that the light shines up in their face, it doesn’t look at all natural. After all, natural light comes from above, not below.

On the other hand, if you expose for your subject and let the sky blow out, it’s not natural either. A sky without clouds is blue, not white.

4. Natural light photography is less formal than flash photography

Because there’s less gear with natural light photography, lifestyle photography using natural light only is less formal than flash photography in a studio.

Natural light for family lifestyle photography is popular, because children can run and play outdoors during a photoshoot.

You just need to be able to:

  • Adjust your camera settings fast for changing lighting conditions
  • Keep up with fast moving children

What do you prefer?

  • Flash photography
  • Natural light photography
  • or a mix of both

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about flash photography vs natural light photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography lighting tips have helped you to decide to use flash for portraits, share that too.

1 thought on “Flash photography vs Natural light photography – which is better?”

  1. Jane I really appreciate all you share. Your tips and advice are well-presented and easy to understand and follow! Thank you so much for your inspiration. I’ve learned so much from you!

    My biggest challenge is feeling comfortable with flash. I don’t use it often, so then don’t have the ease of use when it comes time to use. I’d like to buy a easy to transport flash and softbox with portable battery. Ease of use is key. Do you have a favourite to recommend?

    Deb, from Canada


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