Portrait Comparison – Flash Versus Natural Light

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This article will demonstrate the difference between portraits taken with an umbrella softbox and natural window light, essentially flash versus natural light. My aim was to capture really soft light on the skin for both setups as I dislike hard light and harsh shadows which, even with light modifiers, can still happen.

I was afraid of flash

Before I used flash or any artificial light for that matter, I was always a little fearful of the idea. It seemed like a beast that needed taming or an insurmountable concept in my head. Reading the manuals didn’t help, they were all gobbledegook to me. Once I got over the mental hurdle, the hardest part was taking the first step. After that, the mountain gets smaller every time.

I’m the experiential learner type who learns from trying it out and then reading up a bit about it, making mistakes and getting better at it. I realized that I really do need to read up in depth about something and try it and the cycle starts all over again. But this time, I’m I know what I’m doing a bit more.

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

My first ever attempt at using artificial light was a speedlight flash. I took portraits of my children when they were little, navigating gently the minefield that is Nikon CLS or Creative Lighting System. I got some striking images – overexposed but I was able to bring the highlights back in Photoshop and turned them to black and white. But I was impressed with the results I got at that time. In fact, they are proudly displayed on the wall in my house.

The next big step was getting remove triggers (transmitters and receivers) which did away with the awkwardness of having a line of sight between the camera and the flash. Line of sight means that on the CLS system, your camera and the flash must be able to “see” each other to communicate. The camera tells the flash when to fire but if anything physically stands in the way between the two, the flash will not fire. You can imagine how tricky this is when working with squirmy children!

After those first attempts, the mental barriers slowly went down and I took more baby steps into using flash…adding a set of transceivers here (a transmitter and receiver all in one), an umbrella there, a softbox, and then adding a grid to it…. going from one light to multiple flash setups.

Studio Setup

Beige background

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

Flash setup with the beige background.

Flash setup with the beige background.

For the main studio setup, I felt the umbrella softbox was the perfect light (from the equipment I have) to achieve my goal. In an umbrella softbox, the light faces away from the subject into the umbrella which is coated silver inside. It then bounces back towards the subject through a white diffuser. In effect, the light is bounced first and then diffused making it softer twice.

For the beige background setup, my main light was at camera right. I added a hair light opposite the main light (camera left towards the back) of her head which was simply a speedlight with a snoot attachment (black card rolled into a tube) covered with a diffuser (I used a small reflector for that).

Black and green backgrounds

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

I moved my main light to my black background setup so that it was now on camera left. Window light on camera right provided fill light. I also added a back light, again a speedlight on a stand, as a separation light (explained further below).

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

The green background was on the opposite wall to that of the black background so I did the opposite setup to the above to get the same results.

Natural Light Setup

Black backdrop without separator

Because my subject’s hair was not quite black, I could get away without a separator as shown in the shot on the right below.

Another important note to consider is that if your window light is not as strong as you want it to be, you can add a reflector on the left to provide some fill light and even out the shadows a bit more. I usually do this depending on factors such as the strength of natural light coming from the window, what the subject is wearing (e.g., if they have dark clothes which absorb light, I would put a reflector to avoid any sharp change from light to shadow).

Black backdrop with separator

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

Black background using natural light from the window and a flash separator light on the background.

Now I really love natural light. It is far simpler to work with, BUT, only if you have it in the right place and that is not always possible. The window light in my studio only comes from one side and I diffused it with sheer voile curtains. I always want my window light to be coming from the side at a 45-degree angle (just like the main light on the studio setup above). The problem here is that the background wall is not plain so I set up a black backdrop in front of it.

It’s a super simple setup but not without caveat! If your subject has black hair, it is essential to put a separator between the backdrop and the subject so their hair doesn’t blend in with the background. The separator can simply be a speedlight on a stand or a continuous LED light of some sort. I vary the position of my back light, either upwards, toward the subject to get a really subtle bounced light, or towards the backdrop to get a dramatic burst of light as shown on the left above.

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

All natural light from the window.

All natural light from the window.

Conclusion

If you have a fear of flash, then I encourage you to try it with simple set ups like the ones above and move on from there. Whether you’re using natural or artificial light, it’s important to know where to place your light or the subject in relation to the light available in order to achieve the results you are after.

Comparison: natural light on left, flash on the right.

Remember that by manipulating any light either by angles, position, and distance or by the use of modifiers and diffusion, you are able to mimic any type of light, although this would require practice. Many photographers use a variety of artificial flashes together in one shot, others use purely natural light but with the use of modifiers such as v-flats, reflectors, cards, etc., to add to or subtract light.

The main take away here is to work out for yourself what your preference is and try things like manipulating light in various ways to achieve your vision. I hope you enjoyed this little tutorial and comparison. If you have any more tips, please feel free to share them in the comment section below.

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Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • KC

    Nice portraits. I prefer natural light or continuous light for portraits myself. You’re combining two things here, and doing it very well.

    Taking the portrait aspect out of the equation, natural light is “big” when you think of it. Afterall, it lights half a planet. Indoors, it’s the size of a window. Flash, even with an umbrella or softbox is smaller, and directional. Natural light is like a bare-bulb flash. It’s omnidirectional, a bit haphazard.

    In portraiture, with flash, the quality of light changes, not only with the reflective surface of the interior of the umbrella, but also the distance between flash head to the umbrella surface. (There’s also “shoot through” umbrellas.)

    Another aspect to think about when working with one light flash setups is that the quality of the light is different from the center of the umbrella and softbox to the edge. There’s a tendency to aim the rig directly inline, like a spot light. Aim it behind the subject a bit, anywhere between 15% and 45%. Light the subject with the edge of the umbrella or box. The built-in on camera can be used as a kick, or fill. It’s so weak it works. It also may give you a catch light in the eyes.

    I’ve never been fond of umbrellas for an aesthetic reasons. I just don’t like seeing them in reflections. A lightweight background stand, or stand with a boom, a reflector, reflective, or diffusion fabric is more my preference. I can make a wide range of light sources from that.

  • brucehughw

    Hi, Lily. Thanks for your post – it’s very timely for me! This weekend I’m photographing a string trio (musicians). Any tips for illuminating all three musicians? I will be in a large room and have a backdrop (seamless). I just use the tungsten lights in the room. If I do use flashes (I have two speed lights and a studio strobe), I may pursue even lighting of the trio and little/no special lighting of the backdrop. That way, the backdrop will be dark. Any suggestions? Thank you.

  • I’d like to suggest, gently, that you proofread this post and edit it where needed. In the third paragraph, “But this time, I’m I know what I’m doing a bit more” is missing an adjective. In the fifth paragraph, I figure “remove triggers” should be “remote [flash] triggers,” with “flash” possibly added just to make the reading easier for those who aren’t familiar with the technology. You may spot some other things to fix. I usually do in my own writing.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you so much – what a great addition and totally agree with your points. Brilliant and much appreciated.

  • Lily Sawyer

    I’d suggest you use your speedlight and strobes. Even if the tungsten lighting in the room is strong enough, you may still have some misplaced or unsightly shadows. But you can try both just tungsten and with lights just to be sure? If you have a large enough modifier for your strobe, it might be enough to light three in one go as a one-light set-up. If you can rig your strobe up on the ceiling pointed towards them at an angle, that would be better.

  • brucehughw

    Thanks very much, Lily.

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