Available Light Or Flash

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It’s a beautiful day. There’s a bank of clouds giving soft light to your subject. Should you use available light or flash?

I had a nice day at a local meet-up with other photographers and models on Sunday. It’s interesting to watch photographers work and choose their light sources.

You could see umbrellas (which naturally cause a breeze to appear) and softboxes. A few other folks had an on-camera flash with various gadgets over the flash. You can see a Gary Fong here, what looked like a baby’s white sock over there, and I even saw one guy with bubble-wrap as a diffuser over his flash. He swears it’s great, but I’m skeptical.

On the other half of the spectrum, there are those who preferred to shoot with available light. Yes, they call it natural light, but all light is natural. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad day for available light shots.  Clouds kept moving in and out, giving some nicely diffused sunlight. I made a few of my own shots that way, too.

Even with that great available light, I still relied on my flash for most of my portrait shots.

Available Light Isn’t Controlled Light

Lee’s discussion about the greatest feature of available sunlight. It’s free and ubiquitous. Sometimes, it’s also overwhelming. Shooting in sunlight at high noon in Florida often means blown-out exposures if you’re wide open with your aperture.

The sun may move all day, but it decides where it’s going to be. You have to work around the direction of available light. Sometimes that isn’t a problem. Other times it means you have a Porta-Potty in the background of your shot. You can’t move the sun, so you either wait for it to move or you have to move someplace where the direction of light works with a pleasing background.

You can’t change the color of sunlight, either. Sure, you’d expect the sun to be warm, but the color temperature of sunlight changes through the day. We love those warm colors at sunrise and sunset, but you don’t really get that on a cloudy day at noon.

Finally, sometimes you want shadows. Harsh sunlight may give you harsh shadows. Cloudy sunlight may give you a very flat image. Seems like available light comes in extremes.

You can manage this a bit with scrims and diffusers, moving into shady areas, or even going inside and using some windows to diffuse the light.  All very good options to start wrestling some control of that free light.

Bring Out The Flash

Available light is great when it’s working for you. If it isn’t, you can either call it a day or you can take control with your own light. That’s why I always have a flash for outdoor portraits at my disposal.

Let me show you an example. The same model in the same conditions. The first light is without flash and the second one with flash. Neither of these shots is a keeper, but they illustrate the concept. Besides, it lets me get something positive out of a flash misfire.

Here’s the shot when my flash misfired, essentially just an available light portrait.

Available Light Or Flash

For the next image, let’s take a look at a shot with a Nikon SB-910 fired through a 24×24″ Lastolite EzyBox with a CTO gel.

Available Light Or Flash

I’ll take the second shot over the first any day of the week.  It’s not that the light is bad in the first shot. You can see some slight directional shadow under her jawline. Yet look at how her skin tone changes in the second shot. The jewelry sparkles more. Her dress pops out more. Using flash increases the separation between her and the background, too.

The difference is subtle but noticeable. Adding flash kicks things up a notch. You add an element of control that can make your photos just a bit better than the guy next to you. For some folks, that’s the difference between getting a job or not.

Available Light or Flash for Outdoor Portraits?

Don’t get religious about your light sources. If you have beautiful ambient light that’s working for you, use it. The only thing that matters is your final result. Just bring your lighting kit for one simple reason: nature is fickle. Be prepared to take control when you need something more than the available light for outdoor portraits.

Available Light Or Flash

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  1. You know when people should use flash 100% of the time for outdoor portraits? If they have their subject in shade with bright sunlight behind them. I’ve actually seen “professional” photographers not use flash in this situation and you can’t see the subject.

    1. Good point. If I’m going to look at a portrait, I actually want to see the subject’s face. Flash it!

  2. Do you find post-shoot editing easier or more difficult when using flash in outdoor settings?

    1. I think it’s a bit easier. Using flash with a soft box can actually improve how skin appears.

  3. It wasn’t bubble wrap. It’s actually made of the dimpled material used to line your kitchen cabinet. And it does work!

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