Natural light versus artificial light

I recently posted a few photos in a film photography group to see how people would analyze whether they thought the photos were artificial or natural light. I was very surprised with the answers! There are a lot of interesting thoughts about what natural light and artificial light canned should look like. Many people thought that natural light is more diffused and artificial light is harsher, therefore when they saw harsher highlights they thought it was artificial light.

The look of highlights has nothing to do with whether it is natural or artificial light, but everything to do with how the light is diffused. 

Natural light is often very harsh and unforgiving and can be difficult to diffuse properly. Artificial light is much easier to control, which makes it easier to soften highlights. In the photos below, many of the natural light photos have harsh and uneven highlights because they are natural light.  

The main thing film photographers need to keep in mind is that film is not better in natural light, nor is natural light the only or best way to go with film. Different kinds of light can be used with film just exactly like they are used with digital. The most well known and highest paid photographers in the world use lighting equipment to perfect their images and always have. Natural light is unpredictable, not always available, and sometimes impossible to control, which is why all professional photographers need to learn how to use lighting equipment. 

Below are the photos I posted in the Facebook group with the explanations of each along with some comparisons. 

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Left image is natural light, right image is lit by a flash in a soft box. Most people thought the image on the right was artificial and several thought the same about the left. They assumed that the right image was artificial because of the catch lights, but the catch lights are actually identical in each photo. Windows can create catch lights that look exactly like soft boxes. The subject in the image on the left is quite far from a wall of windows and is surrounded by light yellow walls, which is why the light is so well diffused. Had window light been used with the photo on the right, the highlights would have been much harsher unless diffusion was used. So the assumption about the right image being artificial was correct, but the reasons for that assumption weren't necessarily true. 

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Many people thought that the right image was artificial because they thought the falloff of light was harsher than natural light would have been and that the highlights were harsher than natural light would have been, but this is a great comparison to point out that it is actually the complete opposite. 

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Most people thought the image on the left is artificial. Both photos are natural light. Again, the harsh highlights are actually a giveaway that it is natural light. Falloff of light has to do with  many factors such as the colors around the subject, and does not mean an image is naturally or artificially lit. 

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Almost everyone thought that the right image is artificially lit and many thought the left one is artificially lit too. Both are natural light. Again, these were judged to be artificial because of the harsh highlights and light falloff, but that has nothing to do with what kind of lighting is used, rather it has to do with the surroundings of the subject. 

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Most correctly guessed that there was some kind of lighting used here. A flash bounced off of a small reflector was used to highlight the subject's face since the lighting in the forest is absolutely terrible and tinted very green in this particular scene. You can see in the image below that a natural light photo doesn't look very professional since her face has deep shadows and she doesn't stand out from the background. As professional photographers, our images need to stand out from those taken by amateurs, which is why it's so important to use lighting when the scene calls for it. 

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These were taken at the same spot. The image on the left is medium format on Fuji 400h, the image on the right is 35mm on Portra 400, which is why the coloring looks different and why the one on the right is slightly darker. I'll let you guess which has lighting and which is all natural light!


Knowing how to use lighting with film significantly increases your worth and expertise as a film photographer, and sets you apart in the oversaturated market of photographers. We'll be focusing on using different types of lighting in adverse lighting situations (including the dark) at our workshop in April. You'll walk away with beautiful portfolio images, but most importantly you'll walk away with knowledge and ability to create beautiful images on film no matter what the natural lighting situation is!

-Sarah Collier, Founder