Seeing the (Natural) Light

Seeing the (Natural) Light


Background

Some of the latest dSLR cameras have such exceptional high ISO performance that I've actually stopped using my flash for most indoor shots where I was forced to use flash in the past.  Cameras like the Nikon D3, D3X, and D700, the Canon 5D Mark II, and several other late model dSLR's have made it possible to produce relatively clean photos up to ISO 6400.  Combined with a fast or image-stabilized lens, this opens the door to a lot of natural light shooting that just wasn't possible without the help of this new breed of low noise cameras. 

 

Breaking the flash habit

They say necessity is the mother of invention and when shooting with the 5D Mark II which has no pop-up flash to use in a pinch, I soon realized that the ISO 3200 and 6400 shots that I had taken with just dim light through a window were turning out better than the shots I got from previous model cameras using a high power external flash on the hot shoe.  My natural light shots had a certain appeal and were less harsh than even using bounce flash.  In a sense, not having a pop-up flash has taught me how to shoot in a new way without relying on  that age-old crutch we call flash.  It didn't take me long to realize that I had developed a habit of using flash under certain conditions as a crutch to help with camera limitations; limitations that have changed.  I needed to try to kick my habit and start actually looking at scenes to see when flash was appropriate and when a natural light shot might produce better results.

 

Lighting

Of course, lighting is one of the most important aspects of photography.  Get it wrong and you're stuck with a snapshot.  Get it right and you make a photograph capable of producing deep emotion.  The ideal setup for many photographers is a studio with tightly controlled studio lighting to suit the subject.  Most of us, however, don't have the luxury of posing our subjects or controlling our lighting.  Our cameras are part of our lives and we use them to capture moments that matter to us.  It's difficult to stop and design your scene and your lighting when you are trying to capture a special moment rather than trying to make a moment in a studio.

Standard on-camera flash shots produce harsh shadows and red eye that ruin photos.  External flashes can be pointed up or to the side in a "bounce flash" scenario that eliminates most harsh shadows and red eye, but exposure can be problematic at best using bounce flash and bounce flash is not always appropriate such as when there are no walls nearby or you are shooting in a place with tall ceilings.

Natural light offers an added benefit in that you are able to capture a scene as you see it, thereby preserving the overall feel of that moment in time.  Regardless of how flash is used, it creates an "artificial" scene: one that only your camera can see when the flash is used as the main (brightest) light source.  Fill flash is less artificial because the flash is only being used to supplement the (brighter) natural lighting.  Natural light can be defined in different ways but for the purpose of this article, I refer to natural light as the light your eyes see when viewing the subject.  This can be outdoor light through a window, indoor lighting in a stadium, a lamp, or even a candle.  The point being your camera sees the same light you see.  In contrast, flash creates lighting that does not exist except in that fraction of a second the exposure is taken creating an "artificial" environment that does not exist to observers of the original scene.

 

High ISO

The problem with shooting natural light shots is often one of necessity: is there enough light.  Most of us would opt to shoot without a flash if the scene has enough natural light but many recent model dSLR cameras are pushing the limit of how much light is enough to shoot without flash.  Shots we wouldn't dare try without flash two years ago are made easy with recent low noise dSLR's.  If you have a high ISO capable dSLR, give it a try even if you do have access to a flash.  You may like the natural light shot better.

Obviously your results will vary depending on what type of camera you are using, whether or not you are shooting motion, shooting hand held or on a tripod, shooting with an image stabilized lens, and so on.  Older dSLR cameras may not produce usable results above ISO 800 or so while newer ones may be able to capture decent photos at ISO 6400 or even higher.  The bottom line here is to know your equipment.  Experiment a bit to determine how your camera handles high ISO shots and how that might affect your ability to get good natural light shots.  Rarely do new camera features or capabilities require you to reassess how you shoot, but with high ISO capabilities getting better and better, how you use your flash might be one of those rare instances where modifying your shooting habits might be appropriate.

 

Lighting angle

Lighting angle relative to camera position is important.  When the light comes from the camera or very close to the camera, this "head on" lighting can cause problems like shadows cast on a wall behind the subject, red eye, and other issues.  It's easy to recognize conditions that make a good natural light shot.  A child gazing out a window with the camera shooting a profile from the side is a good shot because the light source is to the side.  You wouldn't try to take a natural light shot if the subject is backlit or the conditions are too dark.  Those conditions call for either relocating your shot or using flash.  Shooting with flash is quite useful but I think many have become so dependent on flash that they pop up (or attach) the flash whenever they are indoors or whenever the existing light isn't at a blinding level.  My challenge to anyone who owns a dSLR capable of relatively clean high ISO shots is to turn up the ISO and shoot a natural light shot or two.  When you get familiar with it, it won't be long until you start to recognize a good natural light shot when you see one.

Natural light shots like the ISO 2500 shot above can capture more somber mood and can almost take the camera out of the equation by capturing the moment as seen by an observer instead of a a device that wants to change the lighting to suit its own needs.  Even a shot with some backlighting such as that above can be shot in natural light as long as there is enough additional light coming from an angle.

 

Summary

In this article, I hope to have encouraged amateur photographers to try shooting natural light rather than always depending on their flash, especially if you have a camera that is capable of relatively low noise high ISO shots.  Too many times we miss an opportunity to capture a moment without "modifying" that moment by adding artificial light that the camera needs to do its job.  Sometimes a little grain or noise is a small price to pay to get a shot like the one above when compared to a silky smooth low ISO flash shot that casts a harsh shadow of your subject on the wall in the background.  If you happen to have one of the latest low noise dSLR cameras, see if you can use that high ISO to reduce your need for flash.  You may be surprised at what you can do.