When ‘specialist’ isn’t special.

“I specialize in natural light photography” is a statement you’ll see on some photographers’ websites, but what does it mean? What is ‘natural light’ and does it make these photographers special?

Let’s get any pretense out of the way first; I’m rarely convinced by such statements. To me the subtext of what they’re saying is, “I don’t know how to use flash, flash scares me so I’ll pretend I don’t need it. I’ll just say I’m a specialist at not using it.”

In essence natural light is any light which isn’t man-made. Sun and moonlight is about it, but looking at some of the ‘natural light’ photographers, they’ll happily pull electric light into their lighting armoury, regardless of the strange colour casts you’ll get on people’s faces under this lighting.

Sometimes the photographer will fix this by turning their pictures to black and white. Which is fine if the client wants black and white. Not so clever if the images are for a colour project.

There are very few photographers around who can genuinely limit themselves to only taking pictures using natural light and nothing else. William Eggleston springs to mind, but I’m not sure you can hire him for your wedding or commercial shoot.

Brian Harris is a working English photojournalist who very rarely uses flash, but can get away with it because of his talent combined with the kinds of commissions he takes on.

Location studio lit portrait of student

Photo taken in a lecture theatre, where light was so low the only option was a portable studio light

As for myself, I often have to work in difficult lighting conditions but make the pictures have a particular style and look. This might mean daylight is sufficient, but often means I have to supplement the daylight (or even replace it entirely) with portable, battery-powered studio flash.

This may not be as simple as pointing and shooting using whatever light there is, but for me the results are worth the extra effort.

If you’re looking at hiring a corporate photographer who “only uses natural light” or “never uses flash”, chances are they just don’t know how to use flash. This isn’t a skill or specialism, it just means they haven’t learned the basic requirements to do the job. It’s always best to check their website first, look out for a dominance of black and white, or strange and inconsistent skin tones. For your projects it’s often important to get a consistent style across all your imagery, and that’s where portable studio flash can help. Oh, and someone who knows how to use it!

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  • pabloconrad March 6, 2012   Reply →

    Good point on the “natural light” fauxtographers. Yes, that’s a pun.

    However, to play devil’s advocate, there are many photographers/photojournalists I know who do not use flash or studio lights.

    They simply kick butt with out them.

    Me? I prefer natural light, but as you, I do know how to set up studio lights and go from there. But to be honest, I just hate on-camera flash and avoid it at all costs.

    A photographer who doesn’t understand light, doesn’t understand the basics of photography.

    Thanks Tim for a great post.

    • Glass Eye March 6, 2012   Reply →

      Dear Pablo, thank you for your comment and your kind words at the end.

      Yes, I do acknowledge there are some really great photographers around who never or rarely use flash, and of course I name just two of them. I could have named many, but try to keep my posts to under 500 words 😉

      I can see you get my point though, and I think it shows in a photographer’s work when they not only don’t understand flash (I too hate camera-top flash), but seem to have much of a grasp on available light either! This post was prompted by seeing one particular photographer’s site which (as with many I’ve seen before) had the statement about specializing in available light, when even that work wasn’t all that great. It got me thinking…

      All the best, and thanks for stopping by.


  • Ken of London March 8, 2012   Reply →

    Tim, as usual very insightful. Although I use less flash than I used to, such is the modern high ISO low noise sensor capabilities, I still have mine with me.

    This has afforded me the luxury of getting just a bit more light in a dark corner if necessary. Wireless connection has made flash far more versatile.

    I think my flash sue comes form being a film waster before being a pixel peeper, also the college I went to made us learn studio very well and portable flash very well. A burden I have made my subsequent students carry as well.

    I am a big fan of available light for my own work, but anything bordering on day job I will not hesitate to whip out the flash.

    Thanks again for a great insight



    • Glass Eye March 8, 2012   Reply →

      Hi Ken!

      Thanks for your reply…

      I’m also a big fan of available light, but as you know there are plenty of occasions where wapping up the ISO doesn’t make (for example) top-down green/yellow office light suddenly look like soft, flattering daylight, which is when you and I would get the flash out. I also sometimes enjoy making flash look like daylight than I do trying to make artificial light look natural. You know what I mean 😉



  • PeterD March 13, 2012   Reply →

    I think the point is that just because a photographer chooses to use natural light, does not negate the need to understand how light works.

    An interesting and possibly not so well known fact I came across a while back when reading the bio of Jeff Ascough (one of the best known natural light photographers in the world). His first year of professional experience was spent in his parents portrait studio, an experience which in his own words he said “taught me about light”. In other words, he learnt lighting techique using flash heads and then developed his distinctive available light technique from what he learnt there.

    • Glass Eye March 13, 2012   Reply →

      Hi Peter

      Thanks for your comment and insight. I do think there are very few photographers who can genuinely take pictures at a high level using only available light without having learned to use flash too. So many ‘people with cameras’ are just relying on what the camera does for them and what they can fiddle about with in Photoshop. It shows in the results though.

      Even I wish I’d had more studio experience. I learned most of what I know about flash through my work as a press photographer, which is a fairly limited way of learning! The rest I’ve picked up through practice and observing others’ work.

      All the best


  • Ken of London March 13, 2012   Reply →

    I had a chance to show off today, gather around while Uncle Ken bores you to death.

    Had to shoot a specialist lens today to go into a paper a colleague and I are writing on corneal thickness and how it affects your eye pressure.

    Anyway this was a job for Mr D700 and associates! So I am there doing my thing and got some reasonable shots. While I was putting the kit away the office wag went and took some with their phone camera and made the requisite noises on how crap I am and out of date. They noticed in my pictures the lens was illuminated all around and theirs weren’t, so I tortured them for a few hours until i let on that I used a white card underneath to balance the light.

    They then noticed mine where whiter, I let them leave today thinking it was because their capture doesn’t resolve colour and exposure as well as a Nikon camera capture does. I said that I was certain I had seen an app in the app store that fixed this, so maybe they should search when they got home.

    Is it wrong of me to not have mentioned my Metz flash or how I angled it off the wall 😉

    I wonder how many hours of search they will put in before they get bored.


    • Glass Eye March 14, 2012   Reply →

      Ken, you are a bad, bad man 😉

      Reminds me of the time many years ago when I was taking pictures alongside a local (not very bright) freelance photographer. I can’t remember what the story was, but I recall we were in a dentist’s treatment room – white walls, white ceiling.

      I was using bounce flash, when the freelance turned to me and whispered, “”Ere mate, you should know your flash is pointing at the ceiling!”

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