Commentary # 45: November 2010
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Strobe Light vs. Natural Light

for Portrait Work

November 2010

- by Craig Wassel

Whether indoors or outdoors, I love watching fellow photographers work light for portraits. No one has exactly the same vision, so there is always something to learn or consider from watching someone else’s set. There is so much found about lighting online now, too, and one topic I always take great interest in is strobe lighting vs. natural lighting for portrait work.

Although I am much more of a strobist, I don’t tie myself to strobes and speedlights; I love natural light, too. As with any other decision in portrait work, it’s a matter of producing photographs that meet the client’s expectations and/or achieve your own vision. However, I find myself disagreeing at times with the reasons some photographers give for using only natural light.

Here are two cases in point:

One: I came across a webcast a few weeks ago of a photographer who specializes in on-location portraits of children. The photographer’s work was very good, and I watched with great interest since much of my portrait work is also on location and with children. When asked why she only used natural light, she said the primary reason is that children are intimidated by lights, and/or don’t act naturally in front of them.

For someone wanting to know about getting started in child portraiture, that sounds like a very good answer. To me, though, it is completely contrary to my own experiences working with many, many children. I have never had any kids run away from my lights or become frightened by the pop of a strobe. If anything, I have had many kids who were fascinated by my equipment, and parents who were slightly embarrassed by all their kids’ questions. I always assure parents that I don’t mind their questions one bit; that curiosity is a sign that a comfort has been established. That comfort starts with my top priority when I begin a shoot, which is getting down at the child’s level and meeting them. I do that before I ever break out any gear – whether it be studio strobes or a simple pop-out reflector or just a camera.

Two: I bumped lenses with another photographer recently at a popular local venue for outdoor portraits. He had finished his last set just as I was rolling in (literally) and choosing my first spot. He was very friendly and also curious, and came over to talk some shop before my first set. He nodded toward my wagon and bags and said, “Geeze, what in the world do you bring?” I answered, “Lightstands, a few speedlights and triggers, a few light modifiers, reflectors, a few counterweights . . . . “ He looked at me and said, “I always look forward to shooting outdoors so I can get away with little or no flash. Why do you bother with all of that?”

I had to get going with my first set for the family I was photographing, so I simply replied, “I just feel more comfortable knowing I have it if I need it”. His comment about being able to get away with little or no flash, and me bothering with that much gear really stuck with me, though. I have no way of knowing the quality of the portraits he made that day, so I have to give the benefit of doubt and assume they were great. His approach to lighting, though, seemed to be based on what was easiest for him, and nothing else.

This really gets to my own point: the decision of whether to use natural light, an on camera speedlight, reflectors, off-camera strobes, or any combination of these should not be based what is easier to tote and setup, and I feel that the reasons some photographers insist on only using natural light are not always client centered. Here are some of those reasons I hear given, and my counterpoints to them:

Point: "People – especially kids – are less natural in front of or even intimidated by strobes."

Counterpoint: I spoke to this a little earlier, but I will go a little further. I would argue that a camera is just as foreign to a child as a strobe. With adults, they are far more aware that the lens that is being pointed on them then they are of a strobe. A necessary (yes, necessary) skill of the portrait photographer is being able to interact with and make a connection with who is being photographed. If the photographer has that skill, then the way people and kids react to strobes is far less important, and any the "strobe" issue is greatly minimized. If a child likes the photographer, she/he will make good portraits. If the photographer can - as much as possible - make adults forget a lens is pointed at them, she/he will make good portraits.

Point: "Natural light is natural looking, and strobe light is not."

Counterpoint: Yes, natural light is natural looking. Strobe light looks different, but I will not go so far as to agree that this is a drawback or that it always looks un-natural. It all comes down to owning a selection of modifiers and having the experience to use them in a way that places flattering light on the portrait subject(s) and the set. Look at the first portrait in the column to your right. It does not take much studying of the surrounding light compared to the light on Miss Courtney to know that I used strobes. The location is beautiful, but portrait photography is still about the person being photographed and not the surroundings. Look at the warm glow on her face and the shine on her hair. I wanted HER to dominate the senior portrait, and make HER the star.

Point: "If you know what you are doing, you don’t need strobes or modifiers – all you need is natural light."

Counterpoint: This last one always raises my eyebrows. First, it completely ignores the fact or indicates a lack of understanding that cameras do not see light and contrast the ways our eyes do. In any number situations, natural light - without the help of a reflector or scrim or fill light - will produce very dull and even un-flattering skin tones and contrast. Limiting oneself to only natural light is – well – very limiting. What does a photographer do when the client wants to shoot in a spot that is very nice, but where the light is far less than ideal? Does the photographer insist on using only natural light, and produce portraits that are less than flattering as a result, or does she/he even say, "we can't shoot there because of the light is not workable"?

An example is the second portrait seen in the column to your right. The mom wanted this spot; I wanted this spot. Look at what the camera was up against: The kids are in dark tops. They are in white pants. There is strong hairlight from the setting sun from directly behind the boys, and if the tree was not there I would have been shooting directly into the sun. No matter how good the camera or how skilled the photographer, this shot is not possible without strobes and the right modifiers. Some natural light purists might say, "but you can TELL you used strobes". To that I would reply, "so what"? Does the portrait work, and convey the warmth and beautiful, rich colors of Fall? I think so. Even more importantly, I got a shot that the mom WANTED.

Lastly, consider this: very good DSLR’s are very affordable now. It would not take much for clients or potential clients to decide they will just try their own natural light portraits.

The bottom line for me is that natural light portraits done well are beautiful, natural light portraits that are forced are less than flattering, and passing on a spot a client wants because it's not workable without strobes is not client-centered. Natural light should not be chosen because the photographer does not own off camera lighting options, or does not want to pack, carry, and set it up.

To me, portrait photography is about finding out what the client wants and where they want to shoot, and then putting the most flattering light on them I possibly can. Sometimes that means just natural light, and sometimes that means natural light and a reflector or two. Oftentimes – even outdoors - that means light stands, strobes, triggers, and modifiers. It is not about what is easy for me to carry and set up. I bring it all, and I give it my all.

". . . Photography, fortunately, to me has not only been a profession but also a contact between people -
to understand human nature and record, if possible, the best in each individual . . ."

~ Nickolas Murray ~

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" . . . This really gets to my own point: the decision of whether to use natural light, an on camera speedlight, reflectors, off-camera strobes, or any combination of these should not be based what is easier to tote and setup . . . "

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