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Portrait Comparison – Flash Versus Natural Light

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By: Lily Sawyer

 

This article will demonstrate the difference between portraits taken with an umbrella softbox and natural window light, essentially flash versus natural light. My aim was to capture really soft light on the skin for both setups as I dislike hard light and harsh shadows which, even with light modifiers, can still happen.

I was afraid of flash

Before I used flash or any artificial light for that matter, I was always a little fearful of the idea. It seemed like a beast that needed taming or an insurmountable concept in my head. Reading the manuals didn’t help, they were all gobbledegook to me. Once I got over the mental hurdle, the hardest part was taking the first step. After that, the mountain gets smaller every time.

I’m the experiential learner type who learns from trying it out and then reading up a bit about it, making mistakes and getting better at it. I realized that I really do need to read up in depth about something and try it and the cycle starts all over again. But this time, I’m I know what I’m doing a bit more.

My first ever attempt at using artificial light was a speedlight flash. I took portraits of my children when they were little, navigating gently the minefield that is Nikon CLS or Creative Lighting System. I got some striking images – overexposed but I was able to bring the highlights back in Photoshop and turned them to black and white. But I was impressed with the results I got at that time. In fact, they are proudly displayed on the wall in my house.

The next big step was getting remove triggers (transmitters and receivers) which did away with the awkwardness of having a line of sight between the camera and the flash. Line of sight means that on the CLS system, your camera and the flash must be able to “see” each other to communicate. The camera tells the flash when to fire but if anything physically stands in the way between the two, the flash will not fire. You can imagine how tricky this is when working with squirmy children!

After those first attempts, the mental barriers slowly went down and I took more baby steps into using flash…adding a set of transceivers here (a transmitter and receiver all in one), an umbrella there, a softbox, and then adding a grid to it…. going from one light to multiple flash setups.

 

Studio Setup

Beige background

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

Flash setup with the beige background.

Flash setup with the beige background.

For the main studio setup, I felt the umbrella softbox was the perfect light (from the equipment I have) to achieve my goal. In an umbrella softbox, the light faces away from the subject into the umbrella which is coated silver inside. It then bounces back towards the subject through a white diffuser. In effect, the light is bounced first and then diffused making it softer twice.

For the beige background setup, my main light was at camera right. I added a hair light opposite the main light (camera left towards the back) of her head which was simply a speedlight with a snoot attachment (black card rolled into a tube) covered with a diffuser (I used a small reflector for that).

Black and green backgrounds

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

I moved my main light to my black background setup so that it was now on camera left. Window light on camera right provided fill light. I also added a back light, again a speedlight on a stand, as a separation light (explained further below).

Portrait Comparison - Flash Versus Natural Light

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