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To Flash or Not to Flash

Get your mind out of the gutter...I am referencing if I should use flash or natural light as a photographer. If you have not read my previous blog post on the subject, I highly suggest you look at the following link below.

If you are all caught up and understand why my title is “To Flash or Not To Flash,” you are probably reading this to find out my preference. But before we can get into that, I believe we need to look at my background in photography.

I started in the wedding/event industry when I was 14 years old with Unlimited Exposures (who I still team up with to this day) and began my “photography journey.” Brett (owner of Unlimited) taught me in a traditional photography style that involves off-camera flash. Whenever we went to shoot an event, we would have lights set up in the venue, and since I was still an assistant, I would carry a portable light to add flash to the photo. Portraits always involved two flashes with umbrellas attached (I always hated setting them up), and if we needed to be more mobile, I would grab my light and follow Brett. I learned a few things from Brett through this process, but I do not think I truly grasped and understood what he was accomplishing with his photos.

My next experience with lighting was when I was in my freshman year of college and took a photography class for an Easy A. In this class, we primarily focused on natural light photography along with the basics. This was my first experience with natural light, but I did not necessarily dive into it. It won’t be until 2020 when I picked up the hobby.

I continued to work with Brett until 2015 when I needed to start focusing on the CPA exam, and tax life got very...taxing. So we can fast forward a bit and come up to 2020. The old trustworthy camera that I had for almost nine years died on me, and I went to pick up a new Canon EOS R. I also invested in an excellent lens and wanted to focus on natural light photography. So during the pandemic, I took a deep dive and started to play with it. I caught some amazing shots at a protest, surprise engagements, etc. I was happy with my images so far but wanted to push them to the next level.

I did a session with my roommate Evan (yep, we both have the same name) to get him some new headshots. I took the photos in natural light, but something was off about the shot. I was not happy with the results I was getting and felt like something was missing. So I showed Brett some of my work and asked him what I needed to do. His response was something along the lines of buying a flash. So I took his advice, did some extensive research, and found a flash/strobe system that worked for me.

Immediately I told Evan (my roommate… I only talk to myself after working on tax returns for 12+ hours straight) that we needed to reshoot so I could correct his headshot and holy cow, the difference using one strobe made. The color was beautiful. I could see dimension with the shadows. Evan popped in the image. From this point on, I knew that the off-camera flash would be part of my kit for most of my shoots.

So if you need a solid answer as to whether I prefer natural or flash photography, the answer is flash. Again I can quickly shoot both, and there are scenarios where natural light photography will outperform flash. I do love the dimension a good flash can give to a photo for preference and style purposes. When you are shooting with natural light, an image can tend to be “flat.” The reason for this is that the lighting is even in the picture. The other issue is that your subject or background will either be under or over-exposed. You will see photographers post photos (including myself) where the background is bright, you lose details, or the subject is dark. This style of photography may require additional editing. I can generally get a shot as perfect as possible in-camera and will not have to edit as much with flash.

The other issue with natural light is that you can be limited with where you can shoot. For the preparation shots of a wedding (where ever they are getting ready), 99.9% of photographers will shoot close to a window during the day because of the light you will get. But there are situations where the window light might not help ...or there is no window light. The photographer will either pump up their ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) or use a flash. My preference would be to use a flash to keep my ISO low (the higher the ISO, the more grain you introduce into the photo) and control the light how I want.

If a natural light photographer attempted to shoot on a rooftop at night, they would need to get highly creative. Even with the sun setting, it will still be challenging, and they will need to push their camera to its limit. As a consumer, you will never know this, but I see where they are pushing their work as a photographer. In my situation, I can shoot a photo at night on a rooftop, lighting the subject and capturing the Empire State building in the background.

Another benefit to flash photography is that you learn how to control light. I can take the exact composition and turn it into five different stories based on how I set up my light. My favorite was shooting at Bethesda Terrace and using my flash to create a dramatic style photo inside. The shot below was done during the day, and you would have no idea. Controlling light is a superpower. It allows me to paint my frame in any way and form I want.

I cannot stress this enough. Each style has its benefits and drawbacks. I will use both flash and natural light for many shoots, depending on what I am trying to capture. Neither type is better than the other. The beauty of art is that it is the beholder who gets to decide what they like.

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