Artificial vs. Natural Light Photography

Hello, and welcome back to Through Our Lens.  In last month’s post, “Expanding to Portrait Photography” I wrote about what makes our portrait photography different and how we use lighting to achieve a memorable product.  In this post I would like to expand on that thought to explain my perspective on artificial and natural light photography.

For the purposes of this discussion “artificial” light includes any source of light from a bulb and “natural” light referring to a source such as the sun, moon or candlelight.  Often times the subject or mood of your photograph will dictate which type of light you choose.  Let’s begin with Natural light photography

Natural Light Photography

Depending on the intensity and angle of the light source, natural light tends to be the most pleasing in a photograph.  It can also be one of the most difficult to control.

Natural Lighting for Landscape Photography

“Golden hour” is a term that is used in photography that indicates the period shortly after sunrise or before sunset.  During this time light from the sun takes on a softer, more reddish tone.  It’s this type of light that gives a photograph that warm color tone.

In order to help show what a difference just a few minutes can make when it comes to natural lighting, let’s look at the same scene shot approximately two minutes apart.

No post processing to images



As you can see in the image above I have opened three images of the exact same scene in Adobe Bridge.  This is where I would normally do some post processing of the image but to keep things consistent all images were left untouched.


This first shot of Garden of the Gods, with Pikes Peak in the back was shot at approximately 6:48 a.m.

ISO 100, 5/s @ f22

Notice the slight pink shades illuminated on the clouds near the left.  You can also see the different contrasts between the rock formation colors.


Now let’s take a look at the next photograph which was captured at approximately 6:50 a.m.

ISO 100, 5/s @ f/22

In this photograph you’ll notice that while the colors on the clouds are becoming more prominent we begin to lose some of the deeper colors on the rock formations.


Here is our final image of this scene for this comparison.  It was taken at approximately 6:52 a.m.

ISO 100, 5/s @ f/22

While this photograph might technically be considered “properly exposed”, notice how it seems flat and lacking much contrast or color.

Natural lighting for Portrait Photography

Obviously most portrait sessions are going to occur at a more reasonable hour then at sunrise or sunset.  That’s not to say that they don’t, but we’ll discuss that more in the “Artificial Lighting” section.  So what time of day is best for natural lighting and portraits?

Generally speaking, early to mid morning or afternoon are the best times for outdoor portraits.  The reason for this is during these hours the sun is at a lower angle and not as intense.  This helps provide pleasing skin tones and natural shadows.

So let’s take a look now at “Artificial Light” photography

Artificial Light Photography

A good photographer friend of mine once told me “Control the light, control the shot”.  Having been a person that always avoided using any kind of flash for my photography (mainly because I didn’t understand it), this seemed like a strange statement to me.

Shortly after that conversation he pressured me into buying my first studio strobe, a purchase that I’ve never regretted.

Artificial lighting gives a photographer the ability to adjust light angle and intensity to achieve whatever look that they are wanting to capture.  The best way to explain this is to provide some examples.

Single light w/Strip Soft box positioned left

For this particular shot Sharon was looking for dramatic contrast between one side of the subject and the other side.  In order to accomplish this she used a single strobe with a narrow soft box positioned to the my left side.

As you can see in the photo, this setup allowed Sharon to light the my left side.  Because of the position of the soft box the light wrapped around softly lighting the right side of my face and the guitar then falls off quickly.

Let’s look at couple more photographs that is another perfect example of how artificial lighting can be beneficial in achieving a dramatic look.

Single light from overhead

For this shot I wanted to have a light shining down on the wine glasses to bring attention to the top of them.

The setup for this shot included a single strobe directly above the glasses with a honeycomb grid.  Using the grid allowed me to evenly distribute the light while narrowing it to approximately 30 degrees.

Sharon decided that there was something missing so she added some color to her shot.

Strobe overhead, Ring Flash from front

For this setup just using a single strobe overhead would not have produced the desired effect.  Simply lighting the bottle and glasses from the top would have left them dark and without much detail.

In order to bring some of the detail back Sharon used a ring flash to light them from the front.  Notice how the light from above created more of a spotlight effect helping draw the viewers attention to the main subject.

Artificial Light vs. Natural Light Photography

As you can see there are definitely specific applications for each type of lighting for photography.  That said, there are times when you’ll want or even need to use both.

Sunsets make for beautiful photos.   However if you’re trying to photograph a couple against the backdrop of that sunset you’ll either have to set your camera to properly light the couple or retain the colors of the sunset.  Or do you?

The simple answer is you can have both.  Using artificial light such as a strobe or a flash will provide the light necessary to properly expose the couple.  Because it’s such a short burst of light the sunset will not be overexposed.  This concept also applies to outdoor photography during the day.

Until next time

Thanks again for visiting us here at DS Visual Art.  We hope that you enjoyed this article and that you’ll consider subscribing to our main page, to stay updated on our latest photography.  Sharon and I look forward to hearing from you and hope you’ll consider us for all of your photography needs.

Sharon and Doug

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