Here’s Why We Always Bring a Flash. Or Two.

I love natural light
Love it! I don’t talk about it a bunch here on the blog, because it seems like I’m always lighting something, but you might be surprised that I don’t always walk into every situation thinking I’m going to light it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we always bring a flash or two, but in most cases I’d prefer to use natural light. Why? Three reasons:

(1) It’s easy
(2) It’s free. (Well, mostly)
(3) It’s fast (that’s really a biggie for me)

If there’s available natural light I try to use it first
That was the case with the shot you see above (that’s a two-page spread in a wedding book I’m working on). This is up in the balcony  and there were all these beautiful old wooden theater-looking seats (great looking, but not particularly comfortable) and to the right of the scene above is just this huge window. Huge! So of course my first thought was â” let’s just use natural light.

The problem is: natural light isn’t always beautiful light
Sometimes, even indoors like this with a big beautiful window with a shade streaming natural light, that light can still be really harsh, dappled and unflattering (or in our case, all three).

If we think we might have the opportunity to use natural light, I have Brad bring at least a 1-stop Diffuser (something that goes between the direct sunlight and our subject, like the Lastolite 1-stop TriGrip diffuser you see above, to spread and soften the sunlight). The sunlight at this time of day (around 3:00 pm) was so bright and harsh that even when we diffused it, our bride was still squinting and the light was still kinda harsh. Look at the light on the chair to the right of her and you can see how harsh that light is.

You’d think the light would be even….
But we soon realized that while we could diffuse the light somewhat (we really needed a 2-stop diffuser), we’d still have very strong dappled beams of light landing right next to her so we wound up chasing down these beams and positioning the diffuser in different places (that’s John our 2nd assistant on the shoot jumping in front of some dappled beams).

This is why I always bring a light. Or two. 
I just wasn’t happy with the natural light, and our inability to control it, so I called down to Brad to bring up a flash head with a small softbox (it’s a 27″x27″ square softbox). I have to tell you, it’s pretty frustrating to be standing in a room with this much light and still have to bring out a flash, but we were having such a hard time getting the light where we wanted it. We finally moved the bride to a different location, hoping for better luck by placing her back a few rows into an area that wasn’t getting much harsh light, but we still had to use the diffuser to keep some of the direct beams from falling on her, or near her.

The idea was to have her in a dark part of the chairs, and then just put a little light on her, and have everything else look pretty dark and dramatic, and this new set-up seemed to work OK. It’s not great light. It’s not amazing light or anything — it was more like just having a problem, solving it to some extent, getting a decent shot so we could move onto another location with the groom waiting downstairs.  Once we got it “in the ballpark” I took the shot using a super-wide 14-24mm lens, and rolled out of there. I basically cut my losses because although I felt like with another 15 or so minutes I could have probably nailed the lighting, I didn’t have another 15 or so minutes.

In the end….
I think the shot works in the two-page spread you saw at the top of this post, even though with that cool of a set-up (with a gorgeous stained-glass window on the far left, and these wonderful old chairs wrapping around), I really thought I could come up with something really special, but just didn’t. I played the hand I was dealt and we both folded. I didn’t win, and the harsh light didn’t win, but I lived to light another day. Hopefully next time, it’ll be later in the day, and I’ll be by a north-facing window —- one that hasn’t been washed in an awfully long time. :)

  1. Thank you for relating this experience, Scott. I learn so much from the things that don’t go quite right for you. Probably more memorable for me than when everything is perfect.

  2. It could always be worse. You could be shooting in sand dunes in New Mexico with harshest lighting on Earth and gotten your gear full of blowing sand, had the model squint the entire time to keep her eyes from being sand blasted, then your crew get the car stuck in a sand dune and had to get a tow truck to come pull it out. All the while not having a usable shot by the end of it. Ahh photography. ‘Tis a form of torture sometimes- disallowed by the Geneva convention years ago as cruel and unusual punishment. Anyone have a number for a good truck driving school?

  3. Good stuff, Scott! Making the most of what you’ve got! Was that the same softbox you used in your last Lighting class on Kelby Training (the Impact softbox)?

    We missed you on Friday! ;-)


  4. Thanks Scott! Great stuff that helps you think through the variables. Maybe this is what the book is for, but it would be super cool to include camera settings… iso, mode, aperture, shutter, exp comp, flash power, etc. Looking forward to the new book!

  5. Your comment, “hasn’t been washed” made the think, so what if it were clean. You know that spray on snow used with Christmas decorations? I bet that sprayed on a window would make a nice uniform diffused light source. Of course who cleans it off. But what are assistants for?

  6. Right on!! Nice post Scott — had this very thing happen to me this weekend when shooting my daughter’s senior portraits…counting on natural, it wasn’t always there…

  7. First, I cannot believe I am evening questioning you on any light or composition but here I go!
    Love the setting, the chairs, the beautiful window, etc but it looks awkward
    to me. The window is at a really strange angle. I am sure the distance between the window and the bride works in a two page spread but here it just does not look balanced. Was there no way you could have shot the photo from a height that was more parallel to her? Less shooting up might have helped??? Ok, now blast me! Rank amateur here!!! Thanks!

    1. Hi Suzanne. I tried lots of different angles, lenses, lighting set-ups, and I just didn’t nail it. If you notice, I moved her to different locations to get what I was seeing in my head, but I just wasn’t able to get what I was envisioning in my head to come out of my camera. Some days you get the bear. Some days the bear gets you. :)

  8. At Adobe Max today in Los Angeles, it was announced that Adobe Creative Suite will cease to exist in favor of the Creative Cloud. So much for having a device not connected to the internet.

  9. Would have better if just faced towards light and had 3/4th her face in the light could have created more drama to the image with this kind picture. Its a nice picture.

  10. Just started following your blog – Thanks for sharing – always good to see the process of how others are solving these problems – even (or especially) if its the ‘good enough solution’ and not necessarily the perfect solution.

  11. Scott, I am a very good photographer & you are my teacher as you mentioned earlier some days it works some days it doesn’t.. but sharing with us what ever you do is a great privilege whether it works or not you are just honest about it & transferring your experience to us is absolutely respectable. Thank you.

  12. I actually like this shot Scott. It may not be what you envisioned, but I would love to be able to offer my brides a spread like this. Not that it would have necessarily made a difference in this situation, but have you experimented with any of the continuous light sources, like LED, lately?

  13. Scott, have a look at that Day with Joe McNally on Kelby Training! :-) Thanks for sharing this I like seeing the “how it was done” shots.

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