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Flash or No Flash? A Quick Case Study

When it comes to photography arguments, the flash-versus-no-flash rivalry is never ending. Some photographers swear by natural light, while others turn their nose up at any photo that doesn't include a flash or two.

I'm not here to make anyone pick sides; we don't need to. A good photographer will know when to use natural light, when to use a flash, and when to blend them.

What I present here is a quick study of two example photos. In this specific situation, the results will speak for themselves.

The setting is pretty typical for photos this time of year: a field of wildflowers at a park. If you're doing fall family photos, chances are that you and your photographer are choosing a setting just like this one. If you're lucky, you're also doing your session during golden hour, that hour or so before sunset when the light is uniquely golden.

The first choice any photographer will make is where to position the family in relation to the sun. The answer is (almost) always with the sun to the family's back. With the sun to the family's back, we can create a golden halo of light along the edges of the family to help separate them from the background. (To read more about this tip, click here.)

However, with our family's backs to the sun, we run into a few problems. First, we need light on the subjects. With the sun behind the subject, how are we going to illuminate the face? Maybe we're lucky and there's bright light reflected from an open sky or nearby building. Maybe there's enough light reflecting off the ground and nearby plants to compensate for the lack of a light source.

Even if we have some reflected light, it's then easy to wash-out the sky behind them, leaving a white expanse with little detail. You see, in order to compensate for the lack of light on our subject's face, we have to crank up our exposure. If the surroundings aren't perfect, then we'll get a washed out background or sky. And, no matter what, we'll have to do some editing later to make sure our image has some punch and contrast.

The last problem we might face is what's called a colorcast. Depending on the source of the reflected light illuminating the face, the subject's skin will turn the color of that light source. Is the grass reflecting light? Then you'll get a green colorcast. Is a red barn reflecting light? You guessed it: red colorcast.

There's a way to take complete control of the situation: use a flash. For the novice out there, I'm not talking about the flash on your camera. I'm talking about a light on a stand with some kind of modifier. (Scroll through the photos in this blog post to see some examples.)

For a while now, I've been using a flash during my sessions. Specifically, I'm using a 48" octobox and a Godox AD600 strobe. A couple of months ago, I decided to leave my speed lights behind in favor of the Godox AD600. The power and consistency of the AD600 is worth the relatively-affordable price tag. (Although, I will say that the three-or-so years I spent mastering speedlights prepared me for a seamless transition to my studio strobe.)

Okay, enough talk. Let's look at the photos.

First, the all natural light photo:

Not bad, right? Totally acceptable and worthy of printing and sharing.

For those curious, this was made with a Canon 6D, a Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. My settings were f/5.6, ISO 800, and 1/400. In Lightroom, I added contrast with a medium tone curve, increased exposure .7, decreased highlights -63, and decreased blacks -37.

And now the same photo, same conditions, but with the addition of my light:

Pretty nice, right?

The above photo was made with the same camera, same lens, settings of f/5.6, ISO 500, and 1/400. Oh, and of course, the off-camera flash setup. In Lightroom, I did the same contrast with a medium tone curve, increased exposure .4, and decreased blacks -33.

For me, the choice is easy. The photo with flash has better color, richer tones, more contrast, and most important to me, his skin looks better. The first place I go is to his eyes. There's less darkness under his eyebrows, and each iris has richer color and more life.

Both photos have good rim light. His hair has a nice golden sheen from the sun behind him, and the halo separates him from the background. But one photo is just better.

In this situation, I'll choose the flash photo every time. It'll look better printed, and it'll look better on my website; it's just the better photo.

So does this mean that I'm lugging around my light setup at every session? Yes. Absolutely.

For one, editing a flash photo is so much easier. As long as I get things right in camera, I have to do almost no major editing to a flash photo. The natural light photo here still needs some work; whereas, I'd be happy to send the flash photo above to my client.

I photographed this young man yesterday. We had perfect family photo conditions. There were plenty of photographers at the same park. But I was the only one with a light. Did the other photographers create good photos? I have no doubt that they did. But none of them created a photo like mine.

Learning how (and when) to use flash can truly separate you as a photographer. If you want to learn more, click here to get started.

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