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When natural light won’t cut it | Day 19

I’ve been dreading this post. I put it off for as long as I can in this series and I’m going to keep this brief.

With fast lenses, with some decent planning, with an intimate understanding of the exposure triangle and a tripod you shouldn’t need to bring in artificial light ever if you don’t want to. There is something so beautiful about light fall-off across a face, and rich shadows and flattering backlights.

I am, admittedly, the last person who should be giving any sort of tutorial on lighting. But I can at least get you started in your research.

Studio strobe with softboxWhen natural light alone won’t cut it you have two ways to remedy it…

1. Light modifiers
2. Artificial light source.

And artificial light source isn’t a bad word. Not like “artificial sweeteners”. There’s no shame in electricity – and many, many photographers pay the bills because of their wizardry with a soft box. And it’s gotten a bad reputation because of the harsh and usually unflattering lighting that most built-in flashes create.

I never, ever, ever, without exception, ever use my built-in flash. The results are not flattering for portraits, and don’t meet my expectations for what I expect out of portraiture. But get creative with your on-camera flash, a coffee filter and a rubber band, and you may love your results.

Light modifiers are simply tools that take existing light and change it in some way – reflectors to point light back, grids to point light, umbrellas to bounce back light, soft boxes to diffuse light… these are all modifiers.

Artificial lights sources can be anything that gives off light, but the ones most commonly used include – speed lights, constant source lights, and strobes.

speedlight speedlite off-camera flashSpeedlights are the most versatile for new photographers and can be used on- or off-camera. For the purpose of this series, and because I super don’t want to talk about artificial lighting any more than I have to, I will say this… in a pinch, my SB600 or my SB800 paired with a Fong diffuser makes pretty, soft light and if I cannot achieve the look I want with a reflector, I don’t hesitate to strap that baby on.

It’s great for fill light outside, and makes a huge difference in indoor shoots with awkward fluorescents or dim ambient lighting.

Artificial lighting isn’t my passion, so I’m not the best teacher but – here are some resources for you when you think you’re ready in consider additional lighting. Some are affiliate links – thanks for shopping through m3b links!

Please come back for days 20 – 30. We’re going to talk less about the technical and more about the artistic. Even our friends with point and shoot cameras who cannot shoot manually have something to gain, I hope, from the remainder of the series.

Don’t forget these aweseome girls who are sharing this 31 Days journey with us:

31 Days of Grace :: Chatting at the Sky
31 Days to an Inspired Table :: My First Kitchen
31 Days to a Less Messy Nest :: Nesting Place
31 Days of Living Simply :: Remodeling This Life
31 Days of Autumn Bliss :: The Inspired Room
31 Days to More. . .With Less :: Beauty and Bedlam
31 Days to a Better Photo :: My 3 Boybarians
31 Days to Stress Free Entertaining :: Reluctant Entertainer


  1. Darcy – thanks for the links and honest approach to lighting 🙂

    Wishing you a blessed day!

  2. If you live in a major city, check out the rental section at your independent camera store. You’ll be able to rent flash units and play with them before you decide to buy or not.

    Looking forward to days 20-30. I’m sure you’re seen “How to Photograph Your Life” by Nick Kelsh. It’s one of my favorite photography books and it has nothing to do with the technical side of photography. It’s all about taking interesting pictures, as opposed to “standard” pictures.

  3. I understand your reluctance to talk about lighting. Talk about uber technical and holy confusing for newbies – even some not-so-newbies! I hate lighting, it’s like a monkey on my back, but it necessary at times. I too, do my best to use natural light, but fill is almost always rearing it’s ugly head at me.

    I am excited for your artistic posts! I am sad October is almost over. 🙂

  4. These lessons have been awesome! I want to thank you for all this great and extremely helpful information! I’ve read most if not all of this before but you’ve simplified it to a great level that is easily understood by any level of photography enthusiast! Thanks so much! I can’t wait to read the final lessons!

  5. i definitely need to learn more about how to shoot w/ artificial lighting!! i am a HUGE fan of natural lighting, well who isn’t?? but our house is usually pretty dark b/c we don’t have very many big windows and we have tons of huge trees which equals shade!! i still need to learn how to use my speedlite flash better so that it doesnt look soo harsh!!

  6. great post! I had a speedlight but somehow it quit working and the camera place determined it wasn’t worth fixing.

  7. I hope I’m not getting annoying, but these. posts. are. awesome. For real. You are a fabulous teacher, clear writer, and you have the passion to boot. Thanks for doing this; I’m pretty much going to reference these posts when I have questions about photography forever and ever. Amen.

    That makes me think of Randy Travis. Do you know that song? Love that song. K, bye.

  8. Here in Northern Canada for several months we are in the dark from 5pm until 8am. So learning to take the best photos with artificial light is important to me. A coffee filter. How great is that? This was very helpful. Thank you.

  9. Will you be talking about reflectors? Both natural and the kind you buy?

    This has been a great series, Darcy. Thanks for doing this!

    • Not specifically but I can say this – foam core is $3 at Hobby Lobby. I love the way it can bring in white light.

      My gold reflector comes to every single shoot. It makes warm light when the mood feels too cold.

      Wearing white is its own reflector.

      I do think I’ll do a few posts of Q&A sessions after the series so I can address anything I might have left out (which, is a lot since this has been pretty simplified).

  10. apparently i need options because the indoor theater shots i took this weekend were borderline unusable.
    was curious if you’d consider doing a question/answer session during/after this wonderful series?!
    pretty please.

    • Ha – yes! I was asked by a couple others, too. I just mentioned it to Dianne above.

      I will hopefully be able to tackle some questions from all the glaring omissions in this 31 Days. I thought 31 Days would be tough to fill – turns out it’s just the opposite. There’s simply too much to cover in 31 Days.

      For theater – that’s tough. Most flash can only illuminate the nearest 5-8 feet. Flash is pretty much useless if they are farther away. For that case, you gotta pump up the ISO and pray your sensor won’t betray you with noise.

  11. Thanks for the wonderful tips! I wish I could get away from using flash but how do you do without when you want to shoot a fast moving baby indoors?

    • With a fast lens.

      If you can stop down the aperture, you can double the speed in response. So if you can shoot wide open at an aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4 or so – then you can shoot much faster!

      If your lens can only open up as far as f/4 or f/5.6 it may be challenging indoors in dim light with natural light alone.

      If that fails, you can modify the light so it’s not so harsh by putting a coffee filter over the flash or by bouncing it off the ceiling instead of pointing at the subject. 🙂

      • Hey I think I’m gettin’ it. I have read and read so much info but reading your reply I think sompin just clicked. Finally. Hee Hee. I will go and practice now. Thanks a gazillion!

  12. My favorite place to go regarding artificial light is http://neilvn.com/tangents/
    Neil wrote a book on on-camera flash that was released earlier this year (an amazing book) and a lot of the info from the book is found on his sight.

    By the way, you are doing an amazing job with these 31 days!!!

  13. Best deal for making DSLR on camera flash look ‘pretty’ is a lightscoop – they only cost $30


    I used to have an external flash for my old camera and this thing is quite often just as good.
    Thanks for the tutorials.


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