{Mentor Mondays} Natural Vs. Artificial Light

Before we get started, let's define our terms. Natural Light = Light from the sun. Artificial Light = Everything else.

Simple enough, right? Great! Let's carry on.

I LOVE natural light. I use it almost exclusively in my work. "Almost?" Yes, yes, there are times (once a day or so) the sun disappears for several hours and I'm forced to go to the "dark side" - pun totally intended - and use flash.

"Wait a minute - what's wrong with flash?"  

In the world of advanced photography? Nada! Except maybe the expense of proper flash equipment. (Boo, expensive passion of mine...)

But the reality is, most of us are only armed with the head-on flash built in to our point-and-shoots and cell phone cameras. THIS is the flash I caution you against. Why? Because LIGHT IS DIRECTIONAL. If you're using head-on flash, your dominant light source is hitting your subject... head-on! This kind of lighting is super unflattering. Here's why:

  1. It causes red-eye. 
  2. It's harsh light emphasize imperfections. Be it shiny skin or crisp well-defined wrinkles, they have no place in our quest for improved photos!
  3. Where there is light, there are SHADOWS. (sound familiar??) With the head-on light of a built in flash, your shadows will be behind your subject. The closer your subject is to a wall or other backdrop, the more likely they are to have a creepy shadow-figure hovering ominously behind them. 
  4. Beware of silly faces! Animals and small children (and quite a few adults) don't have much tolerance for a bright beam of light shining DIRECTLY at them. Blinks, squints, and grimaces are all common (and undesirable) effects of the dreaded head-on flash. 
  5. Let's not forget REFLECTIONS! Windows, framed photos, cars - these are just a few things that can cause distracting reflections in your pictures when using built-in flash.

"Ok smarty pants, then why do camera manufacturers keep putting flashes in point-and-shoots and on cell phones??"

Long story short: it's a necessary evil. They exist so you can both fill heavy shadows, and photograph in low-light environments. I'd rather have an unflattering photo of my subject using my built-in flash, than a flash-less photo where I can't see the subject at all! 

Thankfully, there's a better lighting option out there!

"Let me guess: Natural light?"

Absolutely! Here's why I love it so much:

  • It's FREE. Like very few things in the world of photography, natural light costs me NOTHING. 
  • It takes up no room in my camera bag. If you've ever held my lead-filled camera bag, you can appreciate this too.
  • It's available everywhere, most of time. Well. At least half of the time. 
  • It's "natural". In other words: it doesn't looked staged the way studio lighting can.
  • It's flattering. When light showers the Earth during the "golden hours" (there's that term again! We're getting there, I promise), it bounces off of anything and everything and often provides very soft, even, coverage of your subject. This Soft Natural Light will fill in all kinds of nooks and crannies - be they scars, wrinkles, or tired bags under your eyes. It's not a cure-all, but your subject can expect to look like the best possible version of themselves.  

Here's why it can be a pain:

  • It's lazy. Like I said - it disappears for half the day! 
  • It can be really really UNflattering. "Wait a minute! You JUST said.." I know, I know! Sadly, it's true. The same sun that can smooth over imperfections can cast some VERY harsh shadows mid-day. The closer to noon you photograph, the more extreme and unflattering your shadows will be. Your brights are BRIGHT, your darks are DARK. Sure, you can hide in the shade and still get beautiful photos, but it's very limiting to your creative visions!
  • It's unpredictable. We've survived the Mayan Apocalypse, so it's safe to say we can count on the sun to keep on rising for the foreseeable future! Unfortunately, pesky clouds and precipitation are significantly less reliable. Overcast does NOT mean poor light quality! But the threat of rain will send even the most cooperative subjects hiding indoors. 

"I'm convinced: Natural light DOES rule. How do I use it?"

To make the most out of this FREE and flattering light source, be sure to take your outdoor photos during the "Golden Hours" of the day. Light is most flattering and even in the first hour after sunrise, and the last hour before sunset. 

"So what's the bottom line?"

This week you all have two more lighting tips to add to your photography tool box:

  1. Use your camera's built-in flash ONLY WHEN NECESSARY. Meaning, if you're in a poorly lit space, or you need to fill very dark shadows on your subject.
  2. Always take advantage of natural light when it is available. For best results, take your photos during the "Golden Hours."
  3. Regardless your light source (natural or artificial), always remember that LIGHT IS DIRECTIONAL. Know where it is coming from, and how its shadows enhance or detract from your image.

Simple stuff, right?? Now go practice your new lighting skills! Next week we cover composition basics that everybody can utilize, regardless how fancy their camera. See you Monday!