Flash photography vs Natural light photography - which is better?

Flash photography vs Natural light photography – which is better?

flash photography outdoors

In the flash 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, then 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.

To be able to photograph in any situation, it helps to know how to use both flash and natural light. Then choose the type of light 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.

Here are my two lists of what I like about each:

  • Flash photography
  • Natural light photography

Why flash photography is better for portraits

using flash outdoors in daylight

Shot in full daylight with flash to camera left.

1. Flash gives you control of the light (direction and quality)

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

If all you have to do to be able to start photographing is plug in a flash, or put the battery in a flash, to get light, then you’re totally in charge of the light. 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 to flatter your subject.

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

So if you want soft light, use:

  • Softboxes
  • Umbrellas
  • Bounce the light off white surfaces

For hard light, don’t use any light modifiers on the flash.

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

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

2. You’re free to photograph anywhere (in or out) and at any time of day

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.

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 at the right time of day when the sun is in a flattering position for portraits.

flash photography with sunlight as rim

Two light set up using the setting sun for rim light and flash as a key light.

3. Guaranteed catchlights

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

Further reading: Using catchlights in photography to easily create eyes that sparkle

4. Flash gives your photos more oomph

Flash photography produces crisp, clear photos with saturated colors.

5. You can control the exposure to avoid a blown out background

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

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

Using flash solves both these problems. They won’t have to face into bright sunlight and 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 is the lightest part, that will pull the eyes from the subject, which weakens the image.

Further reading: How to avoid an overexposed sky in photos – without using Photoshop

6. Combined with natural light outdoors, you can easily do a 2 light setup

When you take your flash photography outdoors you automatically have two lights to photography with:

  • Flash
  • Sunlight

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

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

Why natural light photography is better for portraits

natural light photography

Natural light only. No reflector. I brought up the shadows in Lightroom and used the radial filter tool to lighten her face.

1. All you need is a camera and a lens

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 gear you’d need is a:

  • Reflector to bounce light back into your subject if using the sun to backlight them
  • Diffuser to shield direct light from hitting your subject for softer shadows

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.

straight out of camera natural light

This is the straight out of camera version of the previous photo. 

2. There’s no gear to set up

Since 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?

Further reading: Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes

3. The 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.

Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

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

4. It’s a less formal style of shooting

Because there’s less gear set up involved and you don’t have to consider the light placement as carefully, lifestyle photography using natural light only is definitely less formal than flash photography in a studio.

As long as you adjust your camera settings for the changing lighting conditions you can keep up with children running around and playing outdoors without having to restrict their movement.

What do you prefer?

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

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

Also, we love good news, so if our photography lighting tips have helped you to decide to give flash a go, share that too.

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