Each time we step on-location for a photo session, we need to make the best of the scenery and decide which type of lighting to use to capture our shots. Whether we choose to shoot with natural or ambient light, or otherwise add flash, there’s no wrong or right answer. Whichever path we choose, however, requires that we apply solid techniques to get the best results. On a recent shoot at what could best be described as a “budget studio,” we put this idea to the test. In a space that left a bit to be desired, we used both natural light vs flash setups to transform the scenery and capture pro-quality portraits. In this article, we’ll show you our natural and flash photography lighting setups and let you decide which one worked best for the location.

Video: Natural Light Vs Flash

Gear Checklist:

Here’s a quick look at the gear we used on this shoot:

C.A.M.P. Framework

Like always, we used the C.A.M.P. Framework to work through these shots, regardless of whether or not we used flash. For those new to this framework, it offers a workflow solution that allows us to work with intention and yield consistently, quality results. You can learn more about the C.A.M.P. Framework here.

Okay. Let’s get to it.


ambient light example

Within the “studio,” we decided on a wall and floor space to use as our backdrop, and we placed a box for our subject to sit on. The goal for this series of portraits involved creating fitness-inspired photos using either natural light or flash. A window on one side of the room provided adequate lighting to create a worthwhile natural light shot. We could also close the doors and put flash photography to the test.

Adjust Exposure

With the composition set, we can turn our attention to the second step of the C.A.M.P. Framework, adjusting the exposure. Our in-camera exposure settings will depend on the style of portrait we’re capturing, whether we’re going for a bright and airy natural light look or something more dark and dramatic. That said, let’s look at our lighting options and explore each one.

Ambient Light

To better demonstrate the difference between the various lighting scenarios we have to choose from, we kicked it off with a basic shot using only ambient light, which in this case included overhead tungsten lighting. Here’s what that looked like:

natural light vs flash ambient lighting
Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 800

Natural Light

natural light vs flash header one

While we put minimal effort into capturing the ambient light shot featuring the overhead lights, we wanted to create a more professional looking natural light portrait. If you understand light direction, the battle is half won. The rest is setting the ambient light with intention and knowing how to place and position your subject to get the best results. In this instance, we also removed the crappy rug for a cleaner look.

Here’s the final shot:

subject posed by the window
Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 800

Modify or Add Light: Off-Camera Flash

off-camera flash header

Remember, we’re testing natural light vs flash. Now, it’s time to add an off-camera flash (or three) and see how that looks. If we get creative with our added lighting, we can really transform the look of this budget studio.

First, when it comes to adding light, be sure to add just one light at a time. We could use the natural light in the scene and then add off-camera flash to enhance the shot with a kick of light. For this portrait, however, we’re going to set the ambient light very dark and then add a few flashes to transform the scene.

Edge Light – Blue

That said, let’s go ahead and place our first off-camera flash, which in this case is a Profoto A10 with MagGrid and CTB MagGel. The grid will minimize light spill and the gel will add a bit of color to the scene. Like always, use the gear you have available to you.

We’ll set this flash higher up behind our subject and use it to create an edge light on our subject’s hair.

blue light
Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 800 | Flash Power: 1/128

2nd Edge Light – Orange

The second flash is much like the first, a Profoto A10 with a MagGrid, but this time we’re going to use a CTO (color temperature orange) gel instead of a blue gel to give the scene a kiss of orange. We’ll position this flash on the opposite side of the frame and bring it up a little bit. Here’s how that looks:

two flashes
Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 800 | Flash Power (both): 1/128

The exact power settings will vary based on a number of factors, including the lens you’re using, the ambient light on-location, and so on. The settings that we’re using here will help give you a basic idea of the power settings you might use, and you can make adjustments as needed.

Main Light

Now, let’s go ahead and add our main light source. Because the scene is quite dark, we won’t need a lot of power for our main light. For this portrait, we’re going to use the Profoto B10+ with a MagBox Pro 42’ Octa and a grid.

natural light vs flash main light

In terms of positioning the key light, look for the light pattern of your choice and place the light accordingly. Our subject in this scene is looking down and slightly away from the light to keep just a bit of a highlight on her face.

natural light vs flash light angle

If you notice light spilling onto your subject, or even the background, make a quick adjustment of the light angle to minimize the spill. Also, if you want to make the image more dramatic, push the lights farther away from your subject.

Pose and Photograph

Finally, we can finish off the scene with some Atmosphere Aerosol and then pose and photograph our subject. From here, it’s honestly just a game of refinement and fine tuning until we’re satisfied with the final results. Here’s a look at the final image:

off-camera flash example
Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 800 | Rim Light Flash Power: 1/128, Key Light Flash Power: 1/64

And, for comparison, here are the natural light and off-camera flash portraits side-by-side:

lighting comparisons


Which one do you like better, natural light vs flash? There’s no right or wrong answer. Instead, it’s more of a stylistic preference. Regardless of which look you like best, you should know how to capture a good natural light shot when you walk into a shooting space, as well as how to change the environment with the addition of flash and lighting modifiers.