Using flash to make natural light photos might seem counterintuitive to some, and it might drive some natural light photographers a little nuts, but hear me out.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with embracing natural light and natural light only for portrait photos. If the light is there and you can get the look you want from it, go for it. But often times the natural light just can’t quite cut it on its own; at least for some of the looks I want. The looks I’m talking about aren’t necessarily those in which a flash is obviously used; that flash look. I like that look sometimes. It’s a pretty common look nowadays.
Here’s an example:
To me it’s obvious that a flash was used on this shot. The biggest tell is the fact that it’s shot against a bright background that isn’t completely blown out. In fact it’s shot directly into the sun. That’s the little blown out area you see. But the model, Cindy, is properly exposed. Combined that with the catchlight in the eyes and and the shadows from her legs, yes, this used flash. In fact the use of flash is as subtle as a sledge hammer on the head. That’s ok, though, because it’s exactly the look I wanted.
For this shot I used a 60 inch octa just slightly off axis, camera right.
Remember, light is light. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Whether it comes from the sun, a lamp, a speedlight, or a strobe, photons are photons. There’s an old joke about using available light, and then pulling out a flash you have with you because it’s available. Yes, cheeky, I know, but it there’s a lot of truth to it.
For many outdoor shots, I tend to use flash even though when I do it’s not obvious. In fact I like to use flash wen when my goal is to create something that is going to look natural.
Can you tell if this shot is using flash or not?
I would venture to say that many, if not most, would say this was shot without flash. There are no telltale indications that a flash was used. It looks as if there would have been no need for flash. But when viewed at full resolution, you are able to see a subtle catchlight in the eyes that look like it could be from a soft box of some sort.
But, yes, this shot is done with a flash. I had an assistant hold a speedlight in a 28 inch octa about 45 degrees to the model’s right and about 45 degrees up from eye level. This spot is a little recessed nook off of an alley. Camera left is the alley. Across the alley is a concrete building which provided a huge bit of bounced light coming over the rooftops camera right. But during this shot, the rooftops were blocking direct sunlight. So, we made our own with just a tiny bit of fill.
Yes, I could have bumped up my ISO or slowed down my shutter speed, or opened up my aperture (or all three). But for this shot, I wanted to shoot at f4.5 to make sure that all of Cindy was in focus and just a little fall off on the wall behind her. Also, I wanted to keep my 50mm lense at no more than 1/200. The reason for that is because we were running and gunning around downtown, trying to beat the light. I was huffing a little bit and not entirely steady.
So why worry about it? I just decided to use my available speedlight.
What about this shot?
Natural light or flash?
This shot is a mix of both natural and flash. The sun, almost directly behind the camera, had settled behind buildings thus direct light on Cindy was blocked. I wanted to get the city in the background in a good exposure, but doing so left Cindy darker than I wanted. So I used a 60 inch octa just camera left and just a tiny bit of flash to fill in a bit. It really allowed me to balance Cindy with the background exactly how I intended.
In all of the examples I’ve shown I could have easily gotten photos of Cindy. There’s no doubt about that. But I would not have been able to get the shots I wanted. I would argue that, first shot excepted, I could have gotten what I wanted with a reflector instead of a flash. But, for me, flash is a lot easier because it’s more predictable. I also typically use an assistant on these kinds of shoots which really makes it easy.