Natural vs Available Light for Kid Photography [What I Learned from Shooting with Film 2]

Natural vs Available Light for Kid Photography [What I Learned from Shooting with Film 2]


me_with_flash_gear_in_mirror.jpg In this post Rachel Devine (author of our new kids photography eBook Click) continues to share her five reasons learning photography on film cameras made her the digital photographer that she is today. Read Part 1 here.

“Turn off your camera’s flash!”

I see this specific piece of advice all the time as it is often listed right before or after “get closer” on almost every list of kid photography tips published on the web. It does not surprise me to see that often these lists are written by new photographers themselves advertising using only natural light.

While I agree that the direct light from the little pop-up flash is not very flattering when used straight out of the box, I don’t think that it needs to be banned forever. I also love “natural light” the best, but I think one of the most important things that a kid photographer can learn to be is an “available light” photographer and know how to modify and/or control whatever form of lighting is available to them for the most natural results.

I have thought on more than one occasion that when I read “natural light only” the hidden meaning was “I have no idea how to make flash look good.” I know that is not always the case and some photographers truly do just love natural light only, but if you do struggle shooting with anything else, I think I can help! Instead of telling you to turn off your on camera flash and leave the tidbit of advice to end there, I will go on to say if you really want to have as many options open as possible to get as creative as you want, learn how to modify all forms of light.

The best time to get great kid photos is when the kids are ready and that is not always going to be the magic hour of beautiful light right before the sun sets.

My favorite way of modifying the light is to bounce it back onto my subject. To get the best and most consistent results with this technique, I use a reflector consisting simply of a large white foam core board from the local office/art supply store.

backlight reflector diagram.png

I find them durable, but also inexpensive enough to replace when my kid subjects accidentally touch with their hands instead of their eyes. I also depend on my handheld light meter (another holdover from my film days) to read the light quickly and accurately so that I don’t have to waste much time guessing my settings or trusting my LCD. For gorgeous back-lit photos, that is all the extra equipment that I need.


If the natural light available is too low to bounce back onto my subject, I will use my external flash unit with the flash head rotated backwards so I bounce the light emitted off the wall behind me. If the wall is not white or there is no wall at all, I use that same white foam core board behind me to bounce.

simple bounced flash diagram.png

The foam core boards are light enough to stick to walls with the removable putty adhesive or I have an assistant (friend or the child’s mom will do if you are shooting a client) hold the board up for me. Bouncing off the foam core will ensure that there are no color casts reflected with the light from painted walls, fences or trees. This is a great way to get a studio look in your own home.


So, if you have enough light go ahead and turn off that pop up flash. Get great at seeing how light falls and spotting the best locations where you can use the wonderful light of the sun to your advantage. Invest at least in the white foam core board and experiment using it to reflect the sun’s rays as a fill light. Natural light is beautiful, I agree.

But if you don’t have enough illumination, flash can be your friend. If you can’t afford to buy an external flash unit right now, make that little pop up one work better by softening the output. You can consult your manual on how to reduce the flash output or play around with the fill flash settings. You can diffuse the light emitted with either a homemade diffuser or a store bought one. There is even a contraption you can buy that will redirect the light of a pop up flash so you can bounce it off a wall or ceiling! These commercial diffusers are inexpensive and handy to keep in your bag for those “just in case moments” that often come up when your favorite subject to photograph is kids.

So natural, ambient, flash, available…it is all light and with a subject as unpredictable as children are, isn’t it best to have as much knowledge up your photography sleeve as you can?

For more on the topic of Kids Photogrpahy – Check out Rachel’s new eBook Click! How to Take Gorgeous Photos of Your Kids.

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Some Older Comments

  • fiona October 11, 2011 02:41 pm

    Her eyes look great. Lips and cheeks not so much. Alot of purple bouncing onto her face from her jacket. I am not overly impressed by your sample shots. The first photo looks washed out.

  • Phil October 6, 2011 02:44 am

    @Zoe: Check out ebay. Go to Cameras & Photo - All Categories - Flashes and Flash Accessories - Flash Brackets. Lots to choose from.

  • Phil October 5, 2011 06:31 pm

    @f-64 stopper: The title says natural vs available light. It is not misleading. Flash is not natural light. It is available light. That is why the author made the distinction. Hope that helps you understand that artificial light is available light.

    I'm not a big fan of foam core board because its too inconvenient to carry around and use. I've bought several types of light modifiers (lightboxes, reflectors, flashes, etc) but I'm more of a natural light type of guy although I've since learned that the pop up flash can be useful on occasion when the need for fill flash arises. If it gets too dark, then I just grit my teeth and flash away.

  • Zoe Heatherington October 5, 2011 05:42 pm

    Great article. Thanks! Where did you get that flash bracket? I'm looking for one just like that. Thanks. Zoe

  • Sabina Lorkin | Anibas Design October 4, 2011 06:41 pm

    Great article. Thank you for sharing your tips. I agree that the last image is superb. So sharp!

  • Paul A. Orosco October 4, 2011 11:52 am

    Thank you these simple tips.

  • Gerry908 October 3, 2011 02:36 pm

    I'm pretty much a newbie to photography and I'm a bit confused about bouncing the flash behind you. Wouldn't you get some shadow by doing this?

  • Michelle October 3, 2011 12:02 pm

    I use a flash 99% of the time when photographing people. I believe you need it to put those gorgeous highlights in the subject's eyes to really make them clear & pop! I am old school too (started with film) and find that although digital photography has made it easier for more people to get involved & get results, basic techniques such as lighting with flash(s) is being neglected... Kudos to you for highlighting that in your article!

  • Louise Bishop October 3, 2011 11:40 am

    Brilliant tip - will definitely try this out. Beautiful shots too

  • Virginia October 3, 2011 06:50 am

    IF I had an external flash I might have to agree here but I'm still struggling with making my pop up flash work without that awful glare. I"ve turned down the intensity, bought a diffuser and I'm stll not happy. I do like the foam core and like the results. I'm about to purchase that fancier diffuser. I don't have high hopes but here goes.

  • Gary Fung October 3, 2011 06:15 am

    Yes, sometime i think it is very hard to not use flash almost most of the case. Natural light will seldom on our side. Most of the time when we take the picture of our kids are in such a condition that it happens in a second, in certain occasions and it is very hard to plan for the natural light and you do not want to miss the capture the shoot. Also flash is a very good to use as the fill light. I use M mold, and control the shutter speed and the flash output to balance between the natural light and flash light , and also the angle of your shooting respect to the kid. So far it work for me.

  • Russ October 3, 2011 05:08 am

    Great advice, short & sweet!!!

  • Chet Davis October 3, 2011 01:44 am

    Let me echo as well - very useful post.
    To @ccting - consider a portable, collapsible reflector like this disk kit:

  • María Paula September 30, 2011 08:54 am

    Great advice Rachel! This is all new information for me! I'll try to buy one of those foam core boards, it'd also be useful to use as a reflactor for the TV documentary i'm filming for college. Thank you!!

  • karin September 30, 2011 01:33 am

    Natural light source:

  • Sarah September 29, 2011 11:11 am

    @ f-64: you're right, lamps, flashes etc are artificial, but as someone once joked, "I have a flash and it's available" :)

  • ccting September 29, 2011 09:56 am

    I love this article best since I started reading DPS. I tried the method, with great result, but my baby's grandma is very unhappy with the flash! I get scolded and I promise I will never use flash again if babies are around.. ;|

  • Michael Cheng September 28, 2011 10:25 pm

    Great article,
    I never thought about bouncing the external flash behind me. Some times in a room, I'd find myself backed against a wall so I can stay further away from the subject and the roof/wall is not suitable for bounce. Now I just have to remember it if the situation arises.

    I'm still quite new to flash photography but just curious is there any problems with your own body casting shadow or giving off uneven light?


  • Martin September 28, 2011 08:21 pm

    @ccting: what camera do you have? You should be able to adjust the onboard flash using flash exposure compensation (FEL) on most cameras.
    I'd suggest starting with 1-2 stops -ve FEL, and see what it looks like.

  • ccting September 28, 2011 07:36 pm

    I mean baking paper.. I have tried the natural light technique, and using the in-camera flash directed using business card, and the result is very pleasant.. sry i am a noob that never use flash before.

  • ccting September 28, 2011 06:10 pm

    Hmm, the speedlight still very costly, and in-camera flash cannot be adjusted. I would like to get a powerful touchlight covered with sugar paper, to lit the underexposed .. Please comment.. thanks. The cheapest speedlight is still more expensive than an 50mm f1.8 len where i am quite resistent to buy.... Natural light with white board is ok for me ;D

  • Dominik September 28, 2011 05:03 pm

    yes, great article and beautiful photos! In my opinion there is a lot of nescience about how to use a flash. If you want beautiful faces with lovely skin tones, then you have to use some light for it. It is not necessary to use a flash, but try to use a white wall, a reflector or something near it. Try to work with a wireless flash mode and try to bounce your flash-light against a white wall or reflector or a styrofoam plate. Yes, it will cost you more work, but your results will look much more pleasant. I personally don't agree by persons who say that natural light only fits for a good portrait. The results got dark eyes, milky and colorless skin tones and very strong blown out backgrounds.

  • Spyros Henaidis September 28, 2011 02:15 pm

    Fantastic article. I love foamcore board! I recommend it all the time as a cheap and powerful light modifier.

  • Diana C. September 28, 2011 12:13 pm

    Great tips. Thanks so much for sharing these. I can't wait to try them.

  • ccting September 28, 2011 09:57 am

    But now i am thinking of how to hold large white foam core board, and how portable to bring the board while travelling... Could we make the board smaller so that we could carry the board with our left hand while shooting using our right hand? Thanks.

  • F-64 stopper September 28, 2011 09:47 am

    First of all, the title to this is miss leading. Flash is artificial light and light in a room from the sun coming is natural light. A light turned on, lamp, bulb strobes, artificial. Bouncing your flash off of something, is using artificial light!

  • ccting September 28, 2011 09:46 am

    WOW, it is an excellent article that helps me a lot. Thanks.

  • Jessica September 28, 2011 05:46 am

    I totally agree. I'm in the boat "I'm just not sure how to use the flash". Gotta practise practise practise! Thanks again for the wonderful post.

  • Nathan Morgan September 28, 2011 03:38 am

    Wish I had read this when I first start asking and learning about Natural Light Photography. Foam core is great and super cheap. Think of using a reflector w/ stand as well. Haven't bought pieces big enough yet but if tape two pieces of foam core together like a book then they stand up on their own and you can use it as fill on the side or as soft rim light

    Don't forget about watching for dappling and being aware that a grass reflects green light, a pool blue light etc.

    A sample of my portraits including some natural light-midday sun shots

    and natural light wedding photography in Los Angeles

    Happy shooting everyone and price responsibly!- Nathan Morgan

  • Mario September 28, 2011 02:55 am

    I never used a lightmeter, so I'm just curious how you use it? Hold it onto your subject, enter the F-stop and fire a test flash?

  • Fonk September 28, 2011 02:54 am

    Great tips - thanks! I fall into the category of amateur photographer who doesn't yet know how to really make flash look good, so really appreciate this article.

  • Laurent Breillat (Apprendre la Photo) September 28, 2011 02:37 am

    Your advices are very good, especially the idea to bounce back the flash.

    The last picture is amazingly sharp, what lens did you use ? (On Canon i'd bet on a 85mm f/1.8, but I don't know Nikon gear enough ;) ).

  • Michael September 28, 2011 02:29 am

    I agree whole heartedly. In the past I've said the same thing but as my knowledge and experience has increased I welcome the times when I find beautiful light streaming through a window, if that's not available I create my own environment.

    Nice article.

  • Jason September 28, 2011 02:23 am

    Great post. I have 2 little kids that I constantly are taking pictures of... many of which... meh... This should help for sure! Thanks for the writeup :)

  • Ryan September 28, 2011 01:29 am

    Wow I'll be shooting a bday party nxt month, this will be a nice read...
    btw i really fell in love in your shot on the last pic....