Swings and roundabouts

Sometimes it's a tough call for a photographer - use the natural light (also called 'available light') or get out the flash?

Natural light is best of course. After all, it's natural. But sometimes it's not particularly bright. Or it's coming from the wrong direction.

You may be able to compensate for the lack of brightness by opening up the aperture or using a slower shutter speed. But these options have their limits. Use too slow a shutter speed, for example, and you'll get a blurry picture, either because you can't hold the camera steady enough or because your subject is moving.

You can also increase the ISO rating - in other words, increase the sensitivity of the chip. But then you'll start getting 'noise' speckling your image.

I faced that problem yesterday. Friend and writer Pettina Gappah (author of the best-selling 'An Elegy for Easterly') gave a reading to the Geneva Writers Group.

When Pettina had finished reading and was fielding questions I got out my camera to record the event. It was a difficult situation. The meeting was being held in a room with large glass windows behind the speaker and the mid-day light was streaming in through them.

I gave it a go using the natural light ...

Then I tried using flash ...

Which works best?

The flash version certainly gives more even lighting (look at the figures in the background) but it has also brought out the 'junk' in the picture - the assorted audio equipment behind Pettina's head, for example. And it's thrown a shadow of her face on the wall behind her.

But ... why didn't I use 'bounce flash', i.e aiming the flash to reflect off the ceiling?

That would have solved the problem, but I couldn't. I was standing in a neighbouring room, behind some other members of the audience, and shooting through a doorway. If you're sitting near a door look at the way it is built into the wall and (unless the door goes all the way up to the ceiling) you'll see why bouncing the flash would not have worked.

The natural light option gives a better picture (in my opinion), It's the way the background is more muted, bringing out the subject, Pettina.

But it's a 'noisy' image. Here's an enlarged section of the door and wall from the background ...

So, there you go. It's 'swings and roundabouts (from a British saying - "What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts". In other words, it has as many advantages as disadvantages).

What would you have done? Which option do you think is best?


Gary Rogers said...

Personally I much prefer the natural light version. I think it gives a much better sense of the location to the viewer. It has more "feel" to it.

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks Gary.

Agreed. To me the natural light image also has more depth to it. I'll just have to live with the noise.

Shukri said...

I guess it comes down to a question of taste - I'm a firm believer in available light photography. I'd rather get a more expensive camera with better high-ISO performance, or a use a tripod, than resort to popping off a flash. But an image taken that way does make compromises, as you've mentioned. I think it comes down to your responsibility as photographer. If you are there to document the moment objectively then I think a flash would be justified - people would want to see the event cleanly and concisely. But if you were there in a more creative capacity, and had the option to tell a story from your own perspective, I'd have gone the available light route. But it's a good and pertinent question.

Alistair Scott said...

>> I'd rather get a more expensive camera
>> with better high-ISO performance

Right on, Shukri! I was using a Nikon D70s here. I have a Nikon D3 which would have produced somewhat less noise, but the battery charger has stopped working and is currently with Nikon for repair, so I've had to rely on my backup.

John said...


I am no photographer, but I agree that the natural light works best in the example you used. I found the flash picture a bit harsh in terms of how bright it made the background. The natural light does obscure the background somewhat, but it makes it warmer and more inviting. And, as you say, it shifts the focus to the main subjet of the picture - Pettina.