Natural Light vs. Strobes: Everything They Say is a Lie

During the Dark Ages of digital photography, also known as the early 2000s, I spent an awful lot of time trying to get my Canon 430EX Speedlite to work as an external flash. Speedlites, by design, were clearly never intended to be used in this way.

You should have seen it: PocketWizards taped to various dodgy cold shoe mounts with RF dampening material to limit radio interference, cords everywhere. As ugly and precarious as my rig looked, you should have seen my face when I took my first OCF shot during an outdoor portrait session – pure, unadulterated joy. I would no longer be at the mercy of the elements, I was a master of shadow and light! Thus began my obsession with strobes.

Like many aspiring shooters, I quickly began to align myself with the “real” pros – those who use strobes, that is. Imagine a broke rookie photographer, brandishing a sticky rig like Gandalf the Grey’s staff, peering down the unwashed masses. What a jerk.

Like many of us, I walked into an industry (no, a world) that constantly tries to bring people together into small tribes. This is how we are wired. Film versus digital, Nikon versus Canon, prime versus telephoto, all a distraction based on a logical error: the false binary. Black or white, good or bad, the false binary (or false dichotomy) is a logical error based on the idea that one option among a limited number must be true.

Ultimately, however, the premise is a lie.

Here’s a lie for you: natural light shooters are beginners who are just afraid to learn how to use a strobe. Here’s another one: strobists are elitists, gatekeepers, old jerks who are out of touch with modern photography. Ideas like that sound really silly when you say them out loud, but that’s how so many of us act towards each other.

At different times in my career, I’ve believed different versions of these two lies, each designed to protect my fragile ego. Surely everything I do at some point has to be the right way to do it, right? If I didn’t believe that, I might not have the courage to show my art to the world and try to sell it. Looking back, there was hardly a time in my career when I wasn’t far more ignorant than I thought.

What I’m saying here is that each of us has so much more to learn, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you. Having spent my career moving from natural light, location photographer, to location photographer with off-camera flash, to dedicated studio photographer, I can tell you that there is a better way to look at the problem.

There’s a little truth in every lie

Natural light is where most of us start, right? You have a camera and the world around you to explore. Like many of you, I spent time photographing my friends, pets, and everything in my garden (dear lord, so many flower photos).

The truth is, I wasn’t afraid to shoot with strobes, I was so ignorant that I couldn’t tell you exactly what a ‘strobe’ actually was. All I knew was that I loved taking pictures and thought I was pretty good at it. Later when I was preparing with strobes there were scenes that I shot with perfect natural light that I destroyed by destroying them with flashes because I thought that was the way the real ones professionals did things.

In each case, the stereotypes were partly true. In the end, like all of us, I was on a journey.

The real problem here is the style

Seasoned photographers will tell you that a true style takes a long time to develop, and it’s not always a conscious decision. The style develops and changes over time as you gain experience.

The style, a real photographic style, does not come from photographing what you have at hand with limited means, it comes from a wealth of knowledge. Style is what happens when your creativity has a multitude of skills, but you consistently choose specific skills that appeal to you in the moment.

With today’s technology, you can choose to film almost any scene in multiple ways if you have the skills. Which of these skills you choose in a given situation are the bones of your style. As you learn new skills, your style may change.

Great photography comes from the intention, not the equipment

Intent is the difference between getting good exposures and telling great stories. Great images start in the mind of the artist. Intention leads the portrait photographer to add that additional object that deepens the narrative. This encourages the photojournalist to take a step back and include this essential element in the composition.

Lighting shapes the story of each image as much as any other element. Approaching it with the intention of telling a better story places the responsibility for that story in the hands of the photographer in a very tangible way. Photographers who practice their craft with this in mind know the truth: knowing when not to add light is just as important as knowing when to add it.

It doesn’t really matter what tools you use to shape the light in your images. The intention yes. Flash, reflectors, a table lamp; every light source has the potential to make or break an image. It is up to the photographer to control these sources to support the story.

Hitting is easy, but it hurts us all

Everyone sucks when they start, and everyone is on a journey. Shooting someone for lack of knowledge, age, camera or anything that offends your delicate sensibilities comes from a place of weakness. Building others as they work to grow, even when ignorant, elevates the business and the art of photography.

Even in my heinous days wielding my taped-up wizard’s staff, there were kind, selfless pros who listened to me, guided me, and loved to see me grow. These mentors passed on to me a tradition of learning that connects our craft in a world of shallow YouTube videos and expensive destination workshops.

Hitting is easy, that’s why so many people do it. People who act as a steady hand and an encouraging voice know what haters don’t – conveying your hard-earned knowledge, without ambition, is the next level of photography. The next level of anything, really. It uplifts us all.

We all appreciate a profession as varied and contradictory as the people who practice it. So why would it make sense to think in terms of doing things only two ways? For every Annie Leibovitz who creates beautifully lit portraits with a dozen lights, there’s a Pete Souza who finds ways to tell incredible stories on the fly with only what he can carry. In between, there are a million of us working to figure it out as we go along, helped by those who choose to lift us up instead of roll their eyes.

Don’t buy into the natural hype against strobes. Work your craft, keep an open mind, and learn all you can. You never know, that kid with a flash stuck to the end of a stick might figure out a few things eventually. With a little help, of course.


Picture credits: Images from Depositphotos

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