If you’re looking for a photographer for your next portrait session, one of the big questions you may end up with is: should I hire a flash photographer or a natural light photographer? Both will do fantastic work for you and deliver stunning results. However, each style has some pros and cons for you as the client. In this post, I’ll walk through those differences and provide some insights into why you may want to choose a natural light photographer or a flash photographer.
What is Flash in Photography?
Before we dive into the differences, we need to define flash photography. It’s effectively taking a picture while adding more light to the scene via an artificial light source. This means your photographer will be bringing additional gear in terms of the light source itself, a modifier to change the shape and look of the light source, and a stand to hold it up in position. The modifiers used can change the color of the light, the appearance of how soft or sharp shadow transitions look, and can even add patterns or shapes. Depending on the kind of images you want to capture, your photographer may bring one of these light, modifier & stand assemblies, or several (I sometimes use six flashes on a single shot).
Now that we’ve done the high-level explanation of what flash is, let’s talk about what it means for you as the client when compared to natural light photography.
How Flash and Natural Light Portraits Look Different
Let me reiterate that both flash and natural light portraits are gorgeous. There is no wrong choice! It merely comes down to personal taste and how you want your final images to look.
Natural Light Portraits Look Natural
Natural light photography is usually a “what you see is what you get” endeavor. If it exists in the everyday occurring world, that’s what your images will usually look like. Some natural light photographers do a lot of retouching to create a surreal appearance, though. This can be enhancing what’s already there or doing composite work (dropping in backgrounds and items from other images). Irene Rudnyk is amazing at this and only photographs with natural light. I highly recommend following her work just because it’s drool-worthy. The only downside to natural light photography is that you’re limited to what’s available. The available light dictates how your images will look.
These two images below were taken one day apart, at the same time in the morning, and at the same location.
Flash Portraits Enhance What’s There
Flash photographers use flash in two different mechanisms – to supplement the existing light and add more detail to a scene’s dark areas or act as the primary light source and ultimately dictate how an image looks. Supplementing the light may be used when shooting outside in bright sunlight, creating deep shadows. You can use flash to fill in those shadows and reduce the scene’s contrast. I love using flash to dictate how an image looks. You can introduce exotic colors and create images that otherwise would be impossible with naturally occurring light only. The simple benefits of flash portraits are that you can capture a broader spectrum of detail in lights and shadows and get more consistent results in your images because the photographer has more influence over how your pictures are lit.
When You Can Shoot Flash Vs. Natural Light Portraits
On the surface, you can take pictures whenever you wish with either method; however, you will be more limited with natural light portraits.
Flash Portraits Can Happen Anytime
Because flash photographers can add light whenever and wherever they go, there’s no constraint on when portraits can be captured. Pitch black, dead of night? No problem. Screaming middle of the day sunlight? You may not need a flash, but you can add it for some cool effects.
Natural Light Portrait Photographers Need A Light
Natural light photographers have to rely on a natural light source. That means the sun, a lamp, an arcade machine, a flashlight, etc., need to exist. If there’s no light, the camera can’t capture an image. Also, the darker the scene, the more the photographers have to increase the sensitivity of their camera sensors with a feature called ISO. This creates a grainy look (not the same as film) that isn’t visually appealing. In addition, the quality of the images degrades the higher the ISO value used and the more post-processing needed to brighten an image.
Where You Can Shoot Flash and Natural Light Portraits
In general, you can shoot anywhere with either natural light or flash. In my experience, though, I can get away with shooting a lot more places if I don’t pull out a flash. Many venues and locations are totally fine with natural light portraits, but if a flash is involved, many will ask for a permit. Permits can cost anywhere from $25 to $500 for an hour’s time, depending on the venue.
Natural Light Portraits Can Happen Anywhere
There’s really no limit to where you can take natural light portraits. Your photographer can carry their gear into any space if there’s enough light to capture images. As mentioned above, you’ll need some kind of light source, but a single camera is easy to wield, carry, and put anywhere.
Flash Portraits Need Babysitting
Flash photographers love to work in studios and enclosed spaces because there’s no wind or risk of water, and everything is predictable. However, light modifiers can turn into giant sails with wind, which means lights can topple over and get damaged. Therefore a sandbag or an extra set of hands is necessary to keep the flash steady outdoors. Uneven ground surfaces or tight spaces can also make fitting and placing those lights a hassle. And lastly, more equipment means more weight. If you’re hiking around, your photographer is going to get tired pretty quickly from lugging around all that gear. Of course, you can put flash equipment anywhere, but it may be an adventure to do so.
The Pace of a Flash Vs. Natural Light Portrait Session
This is pretty common sense; less gear means less stuff to set up. But there’s another element that’s pretty important for posing too.
Natural Light Portraits Are Quick and Agile
Natural light photographers can pick up and move without much hassle with only a camera body and maybe a few lenses. It’s a matter of picking up your feet. Therefore you can shoot in many spots in a short amount of time, leading to a lot of variety in your images. Additionally, natural light covers a broad area in most cases, so posing can be very fast and easy. You can move around as the subject, turn and twist, and still be in the proper lighting region, which means you can worry less during your session and focus on having fun.
Flash Portraits Are More Methodical
Depending on the number of flashes, moving from location to location can be pretty rough on your photographer. A single flash is pretty easy; you’ll need an extra minute or two to pack up, move, and repeat to set up and dial in the exposure. The more flashes involved, though, the more likely the shoot is highly curated and focused on getting a specific background or look. That means setup alone could take 30 minutes. This in-depth setup is more typical of studio or commercial shoots.
Additionally, posing can be more constrained depending on the flash setup. Some lighting styles allow for unrestricted movement, just like with natural light. Other times, the flash orientation can be exact, and you’ll be limited to where you can look, how far you can move, and where you can place limbs and props to avoid unwanted shadows. The images are very WOW, but you have to work for them.
The Cost of a Flash Vs. Natural Light Portrait Photographer
As with any service, there’s a broad spectrum of pricing. And sometimes, cheaper things are better than their more expensive competitors.
Natural Light Portrait Photography Pricing
When it comes to pricing, everyone starts as a natural light photographer. That means the cheapest photographers typically shoot natural light only. However, as photographers get better in their skillset, their prices will also go up. Therefore, natural light photographers span the entire spectrum from cheapest to most expensive.
Flash Photographer Pricing
To justify the cost of the gear and the additional skillset to work with flash, photographers who use flash tend to start their pricing in the middle of the market and then go up to the highest levels of luxury pricing. One perk of flash photographers is that they’re usually also very skilled in shooting only natural light. They may prefer to only shoot with flash, though, so be prepared to hear, “No,” if you ask for them to change their style for your images.
Which Should You Pick?
I recommend starting with how you want your images to look. That’s the simplest way to determine which type of photographer will best suit your needs. I know I just wrote a lot explaining the differences, but honestly, the look of your images should ultimately make your decision. The above information should help set expectations based on which photographer to hire. Once you’ve selected your desired style of photography, the hard work comes into play on determining which photographer is the best for you.