Natural Versus Artificial Light: Which Do You Prefer Working With?

Natural Versus Artificial Light: Which Do You Prefer Working With?


Many photographers at one point or another are faced with this question; is it better to use natural or artificial light when taking photos? There is definitely not a right or wrong answer, although as a photographer, you’re sure to have your own strong opinions. In this article, we’ll review the key differences between natural and artificial lighting sources, as well as the pros and cons of using them.

Defining Natural and Artificial Light

To begin, let’s clarify the definitions of natural and artificial lighting. To keep things simple, natural lighting can also be thought of as available light, such as that produced by the sun or the moon. Artificial lighting is produced via another source, such as a studio strobe, speedlight, LED light, your camera’s pop-up flash, or even a streetlight or lamp.

Natural light2

Benefits of Using Natural Light

The biggest benefits of using natural lighting is that it is free, abundant, and very easy to find. There’s no need to make huge investments in lighting equipment to find gorgeous natural light to pull off brilliant shots. All you need is a camera and some sun or moonlight, and you can begin shooting immediately! If you ever choose to upgrade your natural lighting approach, the tools of the trade are also very cheap, consisting mainly of reflectors and diffusers to bounce or manipulate the available light. Due to the ease of use and acquisition of natural lighting, it’s generally recommended that beginning photographers start experimenting with natural light before introducing artificial light to help understand how light works.

Cons of Using Natural Light

While natural lighting is abundant and easy to incorporate into photography, it can be challenging for the simple fact that sunlight varies greatly. Depending on location, season, weather, and time of the day, natural lighting can produce differing colors and contrast in your images. For example, midday sun tends to produce neutral white colors and extremely high contrast, while golden hours of sunrise and sunset have very warm colors and medium contrast. Thus, the look you’re going for will determine the time and location of your photo shoot, unless you harness additional tools such as reflectors, diffusers, and lens filters.

Natural light1

Benefits of Using Artificial Light

If you’re a fan of being able to manipulate and control every aspect of your photo shoot, artificial light will better suit your needs. Since artificial lighting has little to do with natural sources, it is a ceaseless light source that is available at any time of the day, meaning you don’t necessarily have to plan your photo shoot around the weather, or availability of sunlight. Depending on the artificial light source you choose, sunlight or even moonlight can be replicated, creating images that appear to have been shot with natural light, but at a time of your choosing.

While artificial light may have a reputation for sounding complicated and expensive, there’s a wide range of lighting gadgets available for photographers; ranging from cheap DIY solutions to top-of-the-line professional grade strobes, and lots of options in between. Some lights can have tricky settings, but many are relatively straightforward, especially continuous lighting sources such as LED lights that have simple dimming switches.

Off camera flash portrait photography

Off-camera flash portrait photography

Cons of Using Artificial Light

Even though artificial light sources offer you more control over photo shoots, it comes with the burden of needing more gear, and time to set it all up. Unlike the sun, artificial lighting costs money, even if you opt for DIY solutions such as candles or desk lamps. Professional grade artificial lighting sources will also need to be held in place with light stands, and possibly even modified with umbrellas, beauty dishes, and soft boxes.

Depending on the photo you have in mind, you may need multiple artificial light sources to balance your image out. There are also other accessories needed such as batteries or power cables and plugs, and you’ll need a dedicated studio or space to set your lights up. Long story short, artificial lighting can adds lots of extra moving parts to your photo shoot, that cost additional time and money, not to mention require lots of practice.

When to use Natural or Artificial Lighting?

What type of lighting you use will ultimately come down to your personal preference and experience as a photographer, as well as your budget and the ideal image you’re trying to create. Artificial lighting typically takes some time and practice to begin using properly; whereas natural lighting is much easier to get started with from the get-go. There are of course exceptions to these rules, but generally natural lighting is usually easiest to use for documentary, street, or run-and-gun photography when you don’t have a lot of time to set up a controlled photo shoot. On the flip side, artificial lighting is usually preferred for commercial, product, and fashion photography when there’s both a budget, and ample resources to create the photo.

Off camera flash portrait photography

Which do You Prefer?

As noted earlier, there are very strong opinions for and against using natural and artificial lighting for photography. Which camp do you fall into, and why?

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Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Natalie

    I’m pretty new to photography but I find that I prefer natural lighting. However, I think it’s only because I don’t know much about working with non-natural lighting yet, so my natural lighting photos always turn out prettier 🙂

  • Paul A. Bing

    Natural or artificial, I prefer available light. It is often the lighting that draws me to a scene, whatever the source. Then I have to find the right perspective that shows the feelings I had when I first saw the scene. After that, it’s exposure and post processing to put the details into their proper zone.

  • I prefer natural available light, but that’s not really why I’m commenting. I have a career as an architectural lighting designer and something I hear all the time is “artificial light” when referring to electric light sources. I think it is important to correct people, light is not artificial. It may be created by the sun, electricity, fire, heat (glowing objects), bio luminescence, auroras, etc. Bottom line: light is light. Further, whether you use the sun as a source or a flash there are a variety of modifiers available to change the way light is perceived or moves about a space. So what this is really asking is what type of tools do you prefer: a bunch of electric lights or the sun with a bunch of shields and reflectors. Either way, I’m glad to see something spurring a conversation that gets people thinking about light!

  • Luis

    Nothing worse than a photographer that calls themselves a ‘natural light photographer.’ It’s immediate code for “I don’t know how to use introduced light/I don’t have the equipment for introduced light”

  • lydia.shook
  • I perfectly know how to use studio flashes as well as cobra flashes, but I do find myself to prefer natural light and a reflector and/or a diffuser. It’s a lot more portable and I don’t need to have batteries with me when on location.

  • Emily Jane

    Yes, I totally agree! Using natural light looks much better for portraits than that fake looking light coming from flash units. I think it takes more talent and skill to correctly use natural light, rather than going the easy route with flash. I’m may not be a professional photographer, but I get paid for one by going on a job using only the light that’s available on the scene. My clients appreciate how simple the process is, and how elegant the images turn out with natural light. I’ll take natural light over artificial light every time!

  • longshadow

    So you mean someone can’t prefer ambient light instead of added studio lights or flash??? Interesting.

  • SteveR

    I use both and often, a combination of both. I can’t always choose when I shoot, and off camera flash can make a midday photograph look much better. Also, by learning to mix the two, you can introduce elements of the scene which would otherwise not be noticeable.
    Reflectors work great, but require either a stand or another person to hold and aim the reflector. Wind also plays havoc with a reflector. A speed light bouncing off a white wall or other surface can fill shadows while in a windy location.

  • pete guaron

    The comments from other readers already cover the spectrum, between die hard “naturals” and die hard “artificials”. By adding mine, I run the risk of being the village bore!

    Stephen Hoppe’s comment is a very good starting point – especially taking into account the “artificial” lighting that’s now available, which can mimic “daylight” or anything else, depending on the specifications.

    If I must express a preference, I have a fondness for the softer tones that come with natural lighting effects – regardless of what floats anyone else’s boat. But in the end, I choose what suits the photo – which I guess means that whatever it is, God-given or man-made or both, it is a reflection of my “opinion” as to what’s the appropriate lighting.

    Chasing “correct” white balance puts some discipline into the choices I make – but I stage breakouts, too, when I want a particular effect, so there’s no absolute rule, for me.

    On my own, “out in the field”, it would often be awfully hard with artificial lighting, if the photo needed studio lighting and flash was simply not the answer. It’s also more difficult to plant flash units around the scene, “out in the field”.

  • Emmanuel

    Light is light just learn how to capture it.

  • pete guaron

    This is one of those “awkward questions”. Which do I “prefer”? – natural light. All my life, I’ve preferred “available light photography”. Simply because I am trying to capture what I see, and the instant I add flash or other artificial lighting, that’s no longer possible. But there are many situations where I do use both.

    Out there in the land of pro photography, you will find some who claim this is pure laziness, and results from a lack of knowledge of artificial lighting – and just an excuse not to improve one’s knowledge base, so that one can take “proper photographs”.

    To me, that’s like the “rule of thirds” in composition. The pity of it is, it is called a “rule”, when in fact it’s a “rule of thumb”, or a guideline. There is no “hard and fast rule”, telling everyone they must land on the intersects created by the “rule of thirds” – and there are plenty of compositions which are far better if one is liberated from the guideline, but so many others where it is a very helpful guideline. And certainly, a valuable starting point – especially for beginners.

    And I think it’s exactly the same with “which light”? It’s a question of what works.

  • Tracy

    Is that Jon Bellion?

  • KC

    Natural/available light whenever possible, “hot” lights (continuous), then flash, in that order. Of course, it’s situational.

    “Hot” lights I need to explain a little. In my pre-digital days I worked at a few studios that had these enormous old film studio lights, with gigantic bulbs and reflectors. They threw beautiful, soft, even light. They were predictable, heavy, hot, and potentially dangerous. Later on I went with Lowel lights and umbrellas for portability. I like big light sources. (We had studio strobes, I just didn’t like the light.)

    Flash, even studio units, with modeling lights I never quite got completely comfortable with. It’s situational. If I have to “freeze” a subject (movement), then yes. Modeling lights don’t give me enough feedback sometimes. I’m sure the newer ones are a lot better than the fossils I’ve used.

    When I started to jump between still and video, then flash became “just one more thing”, and it was back to continuous lighting, since it does both.

  • oldclimber

    Photographers need to be able to “see” light more analytically, and even though eyes/brains process it very intuitively, the camera does not; most problems arise from insisting that the camera or settings aren’t getting it right, when the fact is we aren’t looking at what is in front of the camera lens in order to properly deal with the light available to it. Harsh, diffused, high or low contrast, warm, cold, unbalanced artificial sources, all offer problems and creative opportunities, to compensate or exaggerate, enhance or redirect as we desire. Digital cameras, especially set to RAW, capture only one range of shades and hues, and whether the processing is left to the in-camera magic, or laborious post-processing, the end product depends on the composition and exposure more than any specific type of light source.

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