Facebook Pixel 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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