• Ask Anything

I’ve heard it so many times over the course of my 10+ years in business. However, there was one remark that will forever be etched into my memory. I was shooting a wedding at a beautiful country club, and while I was frantically trying to capture as many portraits as possible during golden hour, I was struggling to place the light in the right place. It was about that exact time that a wedding guest walking into the reception (carrying his own DSLR) stopped and shouted “Those portraits would be way better if you used a flash?!” Yea. Yikes. Not only did I question what I was doing, but I also cringed at the thought that one of my couple’s friend’s publicly humiliated me in front of them!!!

Whether I’m shooting in a backlit scenario in a park or at a wedding during golden hour, it seems like hobbyist photographers and even some professional photographers are drawn to me, telling me how I should be using a flash!! It’s annoying to say the least. However, instead of letting it cripple my confidence and question my approach to lighting, I choose to focus on what I know to be true…..that I’ve found the secret to being able to recognize, control, and manipulate light without needing to use artificial light!!


What’s happening is that there are some photographers who have been taught that it’s improper and WRONG to overexpose a background in order to have creamy, glowy skintones. The truth is, everyone has their own style and you can have beautiful images WITH flash, and you can create beautiful images WITHOUT a flash as well!

My choice is to forego the flash when I’m shooting in natural light! I only use flash at receptions, shooting family formals in a dark church, and when there are emergency situations. The secret to not using flash 95% of the time when I’m shooting is being able to understand how ALL kinds of natural light behave. Whether you’re working in backlit scenarios, indirect lighting scenarios, or direct lighting scenarios, you CAN be confident that you can control the light you’re working with!

As I think back to being a newer photographer, I remember seriously doubting the way I was shooting when other photographers would tell me I “should be using a flash”. I would think “Wait, maybe I should be! Maybe this IS wrong? I’m self-taught! What do I know?!”.

Doubting and second guessing is so common in the photography industry, because while this a creative career… there are also very necessary technical skills that need to be learned in order to thrive. So here’s what happens . . . as a newer photographer is growing their business and getting comfortable in their own skin as a professional, they may be finding their own creative style, but because there is so much to learn technically, they crumble and doubt their approach when someone tells them that they SHOULD be doing something differently.

Let me encourage any of you who have been told you’re doing something wrong…. if you’re LOVING your work and you’re passionate about what you’re creating, then you’re in a good place. Chances are, you’re being advised to do something that is going to take you away from your style. My advice to you is to investigate what was said to you. In my case, my thought process looked like this:

  1. Are my skintones and exposures off? 
  2. Do I struggle editing and can’t get my images to look right?
  3. Could it be that this person giving me advice actually knows LESS than me, and my approach is perfect for my style?

After being told MULTIPLE times during my first three years in business that I “should be using flash”…. I finally decided that my response needed to be…..  “Nope! That’s not true… I KNOW EXACTLY what I’m doing and what I’m aiming for in my work! Thanks for your feedback, but I’m going to keep doing my own thing!”

I’m so thankful that I had that moment of clarity.

Can you IMAGINE what my work would have looked like if I had started using flash in my portraits!? It would NOT look like the KJ work that you have come to recognize today!

At EVERY single shoot, I have been challenged to control the light in a way that matches my style! Take a peek at some of my recent lighting situations that I’ve found myself in!!! :

No flash, no strobe…. just natural light and good decisions when it came to picking locations!!

If you have ever found yourself in a situation like I mentioned above, where you’ve doubted your approach to being a natural light photographer, my advice to you would be trust your style. However, I also encourage you to fight to become the BEST natural light photographer possible!!

My FAVORITE thing to do in situations where I’m being criticized at weddings is to show that guest our same-day slideshow! ha! They are speechless!!! Why? Because I have taught myself how to RECOGNIZE, CONTROL, AND UNDERSTAND light to work for me and my work speaks for itself!!!

We’re created our most TECHNICAL course, The KJ Lighting and Locations Course,  to help other photographers feel comfortable and confident in any lighting too! The truth is, I can only shoot images like what I posted above because I see light differently than a lot of people! I’m so excited to share my approach, my skills, and my systems with our KJ Lighting & Location Course students!!!

For some of you, you’re struggling with light AND location issues!! If you need a little pick-me-up, here’s a FREE DOWNLOAD for you that will help you take lousy locations and make them incredible portrait locations!!!! Enjoy!!

Grab Your Copy of “5 Ways to Transform Lousy Portrait Locations” Here! 

Ps. If you’re a photographer that LOVES flash! That’s great!!! Turn this situation around and apply it to your situation in reverse. If someone came up to you and said “Um, you don’t need to be using flash, it would look better without it!” but you LOVE the look of OCF combined with natural light, I would hope that you would stand up for what you love in your work and not let that comment bother you! I love GLOW over bright blue skies and I prefer blurry background over crisp clouds in the sky! Figure out what you love and stick with it, no matter what critics say!

And in case we haven’t officially met!

xoxo, Katelyn
9 Comments Ask Anything, Blog
  1. Stefanie Kamerman reply


    Boy, did I need your words today! I’ve been doubting like crazy because I’ve been listening so much to what others have to say versus listening -and believing in- to

    Thank you for your timely words of encouragement. Much love from Ashburn, VA.


  2. John Zogaria, CPP reply

    Although it’s fine to blow out backgrounds etc. if that’s your style, it’s not “wrong” for photographers to HAVE to know how to properly and quickly use flash outdoors. In fact, if they can’t, they’re shooting without it because of lack of skills. No offense to anyone, but someone charging as a professional HAS to be a master of natural light and flash/strobe. In this article, I would include that caveat. Personally, I’d love to see the skies that are blown out in these images. A side-by-side of both well done would make for the case to master BOTH with and without flash use. I respect your work and article; however, it’s not encouraging mastering all forms of lighting when calling one’s self a professional photographer. It’s that issue I find troubling.

    • Katelyn James reply

      Thanks for your feedback John! I’m defending my own style… not the entire industry’s! If you love flash, that’s awesome! I don’t… it doesn’t look like me! I could totally have set up an off camera flash for that wide city-scape shot…. but it wouldn’t have looked consistent with my work and my clients aren’t drawn to that style. I found my style and committed over 8 years to perfecting it…. and the result is being able to charge premium prices and have raving fans who LOVE our work! I could have written in this post that EVERY photographer needs to know how to properly use OCF for natural light portraits if they are a “professional”…. but is that really true? It’s most definitely not true for me. I can take great OCF shots at receptions and in dark spaces when I need to… but this article is about natural light and after 250+ weddings and engagements, I’ve never needed to take a flash with me and we’ve had zero complaints! Only praise! :)

  3. Dana reply

    I love your style and I’m so glad you didn’t give in to advice from others. Thank you for the reminder to stand up for what you believe in and are passionate about. Everyone’s style is different, that’s what makes photography so interesting.

    Did I read that correctly – a new KJ class on Lighting and Locations? Woo hoo, I can’t wait to sign up!!!

  4. Danielle F reply

    Great article! I use both OCF and natural light depending on the situation, but I completely agree with defending your own style. It drives me nuts when I hear snippy comments from guests who have an opinion on how I should be doing my job. In reality they have no idea what mood or concept I’m creating, whether that means I’m choosing to use OCF or natural light or my composition, poses, location, etc. People have good intentions, voicing their opinions hoping they are being helpful, but being outspoken and rude to the photographer is not cool. At the end of the day if I find myself super annoyed, I try to remember that these couples know my style and trust me. Not everyone has to approve, not everyone has to like it, just them. Keep doing what you’re doing Katelyn, its clearly working!

  5. Hannah Coleman reply

    These are stunning, please know that all the “heart eye” emojis follow this statement.

  6. Nikki Tran reply

    Exactly. It’s your style and although others will think they know what is best (it used to make me cringe when I saw the “other photographer” coming to talk to me because sadly, it was mostly to critique), you know the type of photos you love. I love that you show the slideshow during the wedding! I would always be so proud (silently) when a critic would see the engagement photos on display at a wedding. A silent “Ha!” would go through my mind. :) Cheers, Katelyn! You’re amazing as always!

  7. Leslie reply

    I am an amateur. I am self-taught. I am my own worse critic. I love wildlife photography. I’ve placed in a few contests and even had one of my photos in a museum for a year. There are some artists I ask and am very grateful for their critiques. That is much different than someone spouting of criticism who you don’t even know. I’m still striving to develop my own style, how can others who don’t even know me think they should direct me? Personally, I love your work and attitude. Keep it up!

  8. Sarah reply

    Thanks so much for this blog post about not listening to what other people say– ESPECIALLY about not ALWAYS needing a flash. I consider myself still very new to the photography world, and I know I have a lot to learn.. but I am so over critical of my images because I compare my images to others too often, and then I think “if only i bought this or that..” but heck no! I love the more natural look! So thanks :)

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