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Natural Light Photography: A Photographer’s Scapegoat?

Many photographers, especially newer photographers, promote themselves as ‘natural light photographers’.  While there are a handful of incredibly talented photographers who work with mostly natural light, the vast majority of ‘natural light photographers’ are using the term as a way of silently saying that they have no idea how to properly use a flash.

There.  I said it.  Go ahead, scroll to the bottom and write your angry comments now , but I’m going to keep typing because there are so many brides and grooms out there who hire ‘natural light wedding photographers’ and end up not being fully satisfied with their photos; they feel like their photos are dark, grainy, soft in focus or simply lacking in that certain je ne c’est quoi.

I’m not writing this article necessarily for photographers, rather I’m writing this article for the bride and groom who are currently doing research into various styles of wedding photography in hopes to educate them on the elusive term that is ‘natural light photography’.  I want the prospective brides and grooms to truly understand the components that make up natural light photography and be able to assess if choosing a natural light photographer for their wedding may be the best fit.  Wedding photography is a considerable investment of a bride and groom’s budget so it’s crucial that you’re getting a great return on your investment.

In my experience not only as a professional wedding photographer but also mentoring many semi pro photographers, I’ve found that a lot of photographers use the term ‘natural light’ as a way to hide the fact that they either have no idea how to use a flash or are too early in their career to purchase adequate flash equipment.  Either way, let’s be honest here, folks… at least 50% of every Canadian wedding occurs indoors where the use of flash is essential for a decent photo.

NOTE:  The key word in that last sentence was Canadian wedding.  Canada is a beautiful country; but let’s face it it’s not known for it’s impressive lighting conditions or predictable weather.  Our dark and chilly (hell, downright freezing in some cities!) and our summers can range from tepid to scorching with humidex readings bordering on tropical.  Unlike, say, Texas; where you can pretty darn near guarantee a dry spell for several months at a time, Canadian weather is as variable as the colours of a rainbow.  As a Canadian wedding photographer, it is essential that you be prepared to deliver top-quality product in any possible lighting condition; you can never be sure that your ideal outdoor photo location will be an option on the wedding day nor can you bank on the fact that your couple will have an outdoors reception.

So what do I mean when I use the term ‘natural light’ photography?  Well, by strict definition, natural light photography is a form of photography in which no artificial lighting is used – this means no flashes or fancy studio setups.  Seems pretty simple, right?

Wrong!  Natural light photography can be incredibly difficult and learning to master the sun is just as difficult as learning to master those fancy shmancy studio lighting setups.  The problem with the sun as a light source is that you have no control over it.  You can’t dial it down the way you can your flash or studio lights – you have to work with that you’re given.

Although you can’t dial down the sun like a studio light, you can use the time of day to your advantage in terms of ‘power control’.  There are times of the day when the sunlight is more flattering than others – take the ‘golden hour’ for example: the golden hour is the 1-hour (give or take a bit) of time before the sun sets (or rises) when the sun is still very low on the horizon but providing a beautiful warm and soft light that is flattering in pretty much every occasion.  When the sun is bright and high in the sky; however, natural light is not the most flattering type of light – not by a long shot!  Harsh overhead sun results in very unflattering shadows on the subject and amateur-looking images.  Although a reflector can help fill in the shadows; reflectors need to be carefully placed in the proper position prior to the photo being taken – this means that getting any type of decent candid shots in harsh sunlight  is next to impossible if you use only natural light.

Wait a minute – hold your horses, guys!

Before you go and write more nasty comments under the blog, keep in mind that I am writing this article from the perspective of a wedding photographer.  Natural light portraiture is a different beast altogether and cannot be compared to natural light wedding photography.

With portrait photography you can take the time to plan your shoot and adjust your location according to your natural light needs.  In wedding photography, however, you cannot keep interrupting your clients and asking them to move to a more shadowed location simply to get better lighting, especially if you’re trying to capture the candid photos that make every bride and grooms day so unique.  As a wedding photographer, your job is to capture the moment as they occur – not to direct the clients like they’re in a stage play!  Although positioning clients during formal photos for optimal lighting is important, you cannot re-create candid moments after finding a better light in which to capture them.  As I’ve said many times before, a great wedding photographer has the ability to adapt to any situation and still produce beautiful images.

In Canada, a large part of every wedding day occurs indoors.  Sure, sometimes people will have outdoor ceremonies – but those are often in the mid afternoon with harsh overhead sun lighting the day.  When the bride gets ready, she gets ready in a bedroom in a house.  When the bride and groom are getting married, it’s often in a church or hall.  When the bride and groom toast their guests and dance their first dance, it’s most often in a hall or ballroom of some sorts.  Unless your house, church, hall and ballroom are made almost entirely out of glass, the amount of natural light within these structures is minimal, at best, and flash absolutely needs to be used in order to produce the kind of photo that your clients will cherish for years to come.  Sure, your photographer could set your super fast prime lens to 1.2f and bump up the iso up to 3200 and drag the shutter a bit, but you’ll only get a super grainy image with such a shallow depth of field it will almost look out of focus – but if that’s not the style of photography you love, then you’re sure to be disappointed.

I think I’ve made my point clear: the use of flash is incredibly important if you want to produce beautiful, high-quality wedding photos that look good not only online but also in print!

So, to my dear brides and grooms, if you’re considering a wedding photographer who advertises are ‘natural light’, I recommend you do two things:

  1. Look through a thorough sample of their work; not just what’s in the portfolio.  Ask them to see ALL the photos from some recent weddings.
  2. Compare the locations in their portfolio to the locations you’ve chosen for your wedding.

As you look through their images, you must ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the morning ‘getting ready’ shots like?  Do they occur in the brides suite/room or is the bride getting ready in front of a large bay window or outdoors?  (Yes, I’ve seen brides get their dress on outside on their front porch at the request of the photographer.)  Will I be getting ready in a location similar to this?
  • What if you want to get ready in your childhood bedroom but only have an average sized window in there?  What if you’re getting ready in a hotel suite, but it only has one small window (ie: no bay windows)?  What if the room you’re getting ready in only has windows on 1 wall?  Is that enough light?
  • What about the ceremony photos?  Are the only ceremony photos in the portfolio from outdoor ceremonies or churches with floor to ceiling windows?  What if you’re getting married in a darker cathedral or a church with only stained glass windows?  What if you’re getting married in a hall with no windows?
  • What about the portfolio images of the formal photos – are they all outdoors?  What if you’re having a winter wedding and are planning for indoor photos?  What if it rains on your wedding day and your back-up location is indoors?  What if your back-up indoor location does not have windows or natural light – can the photographer still produce the same quality photos?
  • What do the reception photos look like?  Does their portfolio feature only outdoor or tented receptions?  What if you’re planning on having a reception in a ball room with little or no windows?
As you can see, very few weddings are suitable to be photographed entirely in natural light.  If you feel that you like the ‘natural light’ style of photography, it’s crucial for you to do your research when looking for a wedding photographer.  If you hire a photographer who is highly skilled in both natural light portraiture but also knows how to master the use of flash then you are much more likely to love your wedding photos.  If you hire a photographer; however, who uses the term ‘natural light’ to dance around the fact that they have no clue how to properly use a flash, then you’re putting not only your photography investment but also your wedding day memories at risk!  Be a smart bride and groom; make an educated decision when hiring your wedding photographer.
P.S.: To those photographers out there who are using the term ‘natural light’ and have truly mastered natural light photography, my hat goes off to you – congratulations for working so hard to master your craft.  However, for the vast majority of other photographers out there who are using the term ‘natural light photography’ simply because they don’t have proper flash equipment or don’t know how to use it, please stick with portrait photography and avoid weddings; a bride and groom’s wedding is not the time or the place for you to be providing low quality product.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Pro Photographer Lists 40 Q's For Wedding Photographers I Photographer Blog
  2. Hi
    You are so right!!In Trinidad a lot of these novices or con men exist.I have seen the poor results from their work.No Flash in a dark temple!!I have some brides come and ask me reenact certain moments.You most likely deal with white faces but we have to deal with dark faces and white dresses.I use silver umbrellas or soft boxes whenever I can and still have to struggle in ps.They use no flash and do no post processing in shoot in jpeg.The results
    are horrible and the call it digital art!!
    Kamta

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