Natural lighting vs. flash

People looking for headshots sometimes say they prefer natural lighting vs. flash as one of their key criteria. When exploring this further, more often than not their preference has more to do with how the flash was used (improperly) and the resulting “deer in the headlights” look. We’ve all seen it – the flash is usually mounted on the camera resulting in a brightly lit face that looks harsh, perhaps a shadow behind them, and often with “red eye”. Ugh!!!!

The issue really isn’t flash vs. natural lighting, it’s more how to use a flash. Indeed, it you take a headshot in broad daylight with the sun facing the subject, you’ll usually get equally poor results. The main problem in both instances is that you have a powerful point light source that is small relative to the subject – the sun is a point light source that is very far away, so it’s size relative to the subject is very small. This is why images shot on an overcast day are generally less harsh, with fewer shadows, as the light source is the huge layer of clouds overhead (overcast days aren’t ideal either as the lighting is very flat and often cooler).

To avoid the flash “look”, you want to increase the size of the light source relative to the subject – this is done with light modifiers attached to the flash – the flash shoots into the modifier which spreads the light across a larger area. To soften the light even further, many of these modifiers have white fabrics in front of the flash (or sometimes more than 1). The modifier is placed as close to the subject as possible, increasing the size of the light relative to the subject.

Depending on the “look” desired, multiple light sources are used to create beauty, drama, reduce or enhance facial/skin features, etc. Shooting in a studio with artificial lights provides the photographer an added level of control over how the light looks.

Even when shooting with natural light, we often supplement that light with artificial light – we often use “fill flash” (a term meaning the flash isn’t the main light, but a light used to fill in shadows or gently highlight areas) when shooting a subject outdoors. For example, on a sunny day, place the subject with the sun behind them, and then use fill flash to place more light on the face.

Don’t get me wrong, natural light is beautiful when shot under the right conditions, but it’s best to work with the photographer to determine the type of look you’re going for (or want to avoid), and then decide both where the shoot will take place and what type of lighting would work best.