Natural light vs Flash

How to Make Flash Photography Look Natural

In Photo Basics, Uncategorized by Deb Mitzel11 Comments

Natural light vs Flash

Do you ever feel like you just need that little extra bit of light for your photography, but aren't comfortable enough with flash photography to make the result look natural? In this article I'm going to provide you with a few tips that will help you make your flash photography look natural and give your photographs that extra level of professionalism you desire.

For our discussion here, I’m going to assume that you already have a flash and know how to use it, but if that’s not the case, here are a couple of resources from Improve Photography to help you get started –  The Flash Photography Crash Course and Recommended Flash Photography Kits.

I can think of a number of shooting situations where flash can be front and center in your images, and the desire to have it look like natural light is a non-issue. However, for every time that is the case, there are 10 times where you want it to look natural. If our goal is to make our photos look more natural with flash, let’s start out by identifying some of the things that keep them from looking natural.  Three things immediately come to mind – a pool of light surrounding your subject, hard edged shadows, and bright highlights on the skin.

One of the most common mistakes most of us make when we get started with flash is thinking that the flash IS our light. As a result, we end up overpowering the ambient light with our flash, which kills most of the light in the scene. If we want our images to look natural, we need to start with the light that is available and then add flash as needed to complement the ambient light. As I have learned more about lighting, one solid piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again is to add light to your subject one light at a time. Don’t throw a bunch of light at the scene all at once. This will make it more difficult to make changes when necessary. Take your time – start with the ambient light – look at the direction it’s coming from, and use your flash to enhance what’s already there.

TIPS to Make Your Flash Photography Look Natural

MAINTAIN THE NATURAL DIRECTION OF LIGHT

Pay attention to the natural direction of the light and place your flash to come from the same direction. If the sun is shining in the window to the right of your subject, the light from your flash should be coming from the same direction. You may want to use a flash to provide a little fill light, depending on the scene, but keeping it subtle and realistic will be the key to maintaining that natural feel.

Flash that looks natural

USE LARGE LIGHT MODIFIERS

When we think of natural light characteristics, we usually think of soft, even lighting that blankets our scene in light. To achieve that look, we can use a variety of light modifiers, such as umbrellas and softboxes, which soften the light and reduce harsh shadows that wouldn’t be present with natural light.

TAKE YOUR FLASH OFF CAMERA

Natural light doesn’t typically come from directly in front of your subject as would be the case with on-camera flash, so getting your flash off of your camera is another important step toward creating more natural looking photos. Taking your flash off camera will help to create more natural highlights and shadows. If you’re taking portraits, and use on camera flash or place the light directly in front of your subject, the contours and angles of the face will appear flat because there aren’t any shadows to define the shape. Move that same light 45 degrees on either side of the camera, and you will see beautiful definition in your subject’s facial features.

For more resources on getting started with off camera flash, check out Jim Harmer’s article, Understand How to Use Off-Camera Flash in 10 Minutes or Less.

Using Flash Outdoors

Flash can help define highlights and shadows in your portrait subjects.

BOUNCE YOUR FLASH

Bouncing your flash off the ceiling, a wall, or other reflective object can greatly soften the light that hits your subject. If you’re not familiar with bouncing your flash, it is really just what it sounds like. Point your flash towards the ceiling or wall so the light bounces back onto your subject. Bouncing off the ceiling can create a natural light that mimics typical overhead lighting, but if you prefer more directional lighting, bouncing off a wall on either side of your subject is a great idea. A good tip I’ve heard regarding placement is to point your flash in the same direction as the nose of your subject. This will result in light bouncing back and creating nice highlights and shadows in the face of your subject. While bouncing flash can be useful with off camera flash as well, if on-camera flash is your only option, learning to bounce your flash will dramatically improve your photos. Pay close attention to what you are using to bounce from, however, as colored walls will tend to create a color cast that bounces back onto your subjects and can create a post processing nightmare. If you don’t have a light wall or surface readily available to bounce your flash, simple items such as white poster board, foam core, or inexpensive reflectors will work.

Flash bounced off of wall

Flash was bounced off the opposite wall to simulate natural light in a situation where the ambient light was low.

SLOW YOUR SHUTTER SPEED

Slowing your shutter speed to bring in more ambient light will help give your images a more natural feel. Start by setting your camera for the ambient light, then add flash to control the light hitting your subject. It is important to note that shutter speed affects the amount of ambient light being recorded by your camera, and aperture affects the separation of the subject from the background.

One other important note about slowing your shutter speed when using flash, is that flash can help freeze the frame in low ambient light conditions. This means you can select a shutter speed that is lower than you would normally choose when hand holding your camera. This works because the flash duration is much faster than the shutter speed and will freeze the frame. Experiment with this and see what works for you, but generally speaking, if your ambient light is 4 or more stops under your flash exposure, you should be able to freeze motion at a slower shutter speed.

REDUCE THE POWER OF YOUR FLASH

Remember that the flash should be used to enhance the light that already exists in the scene. Reducing the power of your flash to mix better with the ambient light will result in more natural looking images.

RAISE YOUR FLASH UP

Much of the light in our environment comes from above, whether indoors or outside with the sun, so you can make your flash appear more natural by using the same positioning with your flash. Raising your flash up above your subject and off to the side to mimic the natural height and direction of light can have a significant impact on your photos.

Flash that looks natural

I spend most of my time doing portrait photography, primarily with high school seniors. The majority of my shoots are outdoors, but I do use flash for fill light on a regular basis. Even though I’ve been working with flash for quite a while, I still struggle with it at times, especially indoors. I don’t like the look of harsh shadows in my portraits, so I’m always trying to find the best way to minimize them. Taking the time to experiment and practice using these tips has helped me get more consistent results, and I hope they will do the same for you. I would love to hear your tips on making flash photography look natural, as well as your experiences with the ones I’ve provided.


About the Author

Deb Mitzel

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Deb is a portrait photographer, specializing in senior portraiture in the beautiful Brainerd Lakes Area of Minnesota. With a full time career in the automotive industry and a part time photography business, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is her motto. When not busy working on some project at home, she and her husband enjoy traveling and exploring the great outdoors. Find out more about Deb and her photography on her blog at dmitzphoto.com, her website at debmitzelphotography.com, or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Comments

  1. Just getting back into separate flash, usually turn camera flash off so I can photograph in churches & museums. Got my first DSLR last fall, so have to learn all over again what I used with my film camera 30 years ago

    1. Author

      I hear you on relearning, John! The good news is that there are so many great resources available these days, so your learning curve won’t be so steep. Thanks for being a part of the IP Community. 🙂

  2. I would say that a big one would be to gel your flash properly for color consistency with the ambient light.

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