The Natural Light Versus Studio Light debate is always a fiery one. Some photographers are firmly in their indoor camp surrounded by their studio flash, a fort of softboxes with a diffuser brolly roof. Whilst others wander freely in nature, warmed by the sun and weighed by only their camera.
Okay, i am joking there a little. Most photographers will have a preference, but great photographers have mastered both.
I was firmly in the studio camp for a while, turned off from natural light photography by the prevalence of amateur photographers posing as professionals with poorly light outdoor headshots, and distasteful ‘nudes in rivers’. I stayed in my studio camp for so long because at least you can’t fake that. You can’t get by without knowledge in the studio where everything about the aesthetic is easily within your control. I revelled in creating intricate lighting setups and experimenting with different styles in the safety of that little room.
However, a few recent shoots have rekindled my love of natural light and i want to share with you why i love it so much, and i am so glad to have rediscovered it’s beauty.
1. Natural Light = Packing Light …. Sometimes.
As a photographer that spends most of my time doing studio lit projects, i often find myself looking like a packhorse, with kilos and kilos of equipment strapped to my back. I have had shoots with such complicated lighting requests that it required an extra person on the crew just to help with carrying. Taking this much equipment has a knock on effect when your travelling for a shoot. Getting the train into Central London is quick and efficient; driving a giant mum-mobile (because it will fit the 7 cases of lighting and photography paraphernalia) is time consuming, tiring and BORING.
Having all your lighting needs being supplied by mother nature allows you to leave the luggage in the studio and travel light. Having said that, don’t get too comfortable with your lack of packing. If your planning a shoot in natural light, you need to do your research. Factors such as ; what direction the sun will be coming from, how long you’ll have sun for, and the general weather conditions will have a huge impact on the outcome of the images. There are a few great phone apps which can help photographers envisage where the sun will be at various times of the day (For me, sun seeker is the real winner with it’s augmented reality view) If the conditions are not going to be optimum then you will need to bring modifiers, additional lighting and potentially postpone the shoot for a day when the weather will be better.
2. Freedom to Move Your Feet.
Shooting in the studio is a pretty simple affair. Photographers often spend time before the actual shoot getting the lighting just right before the shoot actually commences so that everything runs smoothly on the day. There’s not a huge amount of variables in play on the actual shoot – so other than some minor fine tuning, you will tend to be within the same couple of feet for the shoot.
Shooting on location with lighting is a whole other kettle of fish. There is often a lot of scope for moving around to get different angles and backdrops when you’re on location – but being weighed down with that much equipment is a drag. If you have lighting in play on a location shoot then each move around the location can take a little while to physically move the lights and re-adjust the lighting. Shooting using natural light can open up the creative flow a bit more, allowing the photographer the freedom to chop and change angles, move around the subject to capture different lighting styles and backdrops.
For the shot above, we had been following the model and horse around the location on foot, and found this beautiful little pocket of shade on a lane. We had the freedom to stop and shoot for a while because we weren’t bogged down with kit.
3. It’s a Challenge.
Always be wary of a photographer that says they ‘only use available light’. That is code for ‘i don’t know how lighting works’. And as a photographer, if you don’t know lighting; you don’t know photography. New photographers often use shooting outside as a cover for not understanding studio lighting…. but i guarantee you, if they don’t understand how to read the light, and modify it to their needs then the images will suffer.
Shooting in natural light can sometimes be a dream so long as you understand how it works. If you are unsure of how to utilise it, natural light can be a photographers worst nightmare. Shooting in bad lighting conditions can test your ability to problem solve to the limit. When shooting in natural light, you must research the conditions as much as you can, and if they aren’t going to be right then take additional lighting – but even with the research, you’re still going in blind most of the time and you will have to think on your feet to get the optimal results. You have to be flexible to work with the light moving and changing throughout the day, work with the surrounding and your modifiers to help shape the light to your advantage.
In the above images we are blocking the direct sunlight from the models face whilst allowing the light to fall on the wall behind her, taking the harshness from her face whilst keeping the pop of light behind her.
4. Bang up that Shutterspeed.
With the advancement of new technologies including, mirrorless cameras and the introduction of the rolling shutter high speed sync lighting, allowing us to shoot at high shutter speeds, this point carries a little less weight. However, there are still a lot of photographers whose kit limits them to shoot flash at 1/250. Bright daylight allows you to bump that shutter speed all the way up, great for capturing high speed action in a natural settings. Sports photographers have been utilising the giant light in the sky since the dawn of photography (well, not quite the dawn because high shutter speeds weren’t developed until the 1930s, by Eastman Kodak.)
5. It’s a Bargain!
Okay, so i’m going to be brutally honest here: You can make ANY shoot expensive. Some clients will LOVE to spend money and I am totally on board with having all the creature comforts, great catering, a team of 10 and a base camp to go for a wee. However, my point here is that you CAN shoot outdoors on the cheap. Public spaces can often be used without incurring any costs whatsoever, as long as the team is small and nothing is on the floor (Please always check the local councils rules on this, and check the area you want to shoot is not privately owned). Many beautiful privately owned spaces can be booked for much smaller costs than indoor locations.
The low cost of shooting outside doesn’t come just from a lack of location fee. Shooting in natural light can remove the need for masses of equipment (potentially rental and transport costs), less stuff can equal less crew (especially for video), less time spent messing around with lighting and equipment means more time shooting and creating content and the ability to create a wider range of content without individual costs per location. All these are benefits which great for us, but also benefit the client massively.
6. Its Real.
Pinging direct sunlight for a Swimwear shoot. Soft window light for flowy gowns. Cloudy street style imagery for athleisure brands. Sunlight is real and raw, and capturing it in its many forms has an un-nameable quality of authenticity which cannot be recreated in a studio setting. Yes, we can try. And many well know photographers have built solid careers on faking daylight in a studio (annie leibowitz comes to mind). However, the allure of the daylight candid can’t be beaten.
7. Lighting Styles.
Daylight takes many forms and it is utmost priority that you book the shoot with a specific light in mind. Hard direct sunlight with a glorious blue sky. A misty morning with warm greys. Indirect northern light through a window. The golden glow of a sunset. Each of these have their own merits and their own pitfalls. They also lend themselves towards specific looks for fashion and commercial photography so it is important to understand what you are wanting to achieve before you set out to shoot.
8. It’s versatile – bounce it, fill it, block it, diffuse it.
Raw natural light (especially at midday) can be thoroughly unflattering and downright ugly. The trick is to modify that light, by diffusing, blocking and bouncing the light around the subject until it’s taken the shape you require. Finding shade from nearby buildings or trees can suitable block midday sun, but you still need to ensure that your model is ‘finding the light’. A lot of shooting in natural light is ‘reading’ the light. Seeing the light for how it really looks in person, without being distracted by the other elements in the photo. So often i see a wonderfull shots taken by photographers where the light on the models face is off. Its so easy to caught up in the buzz of creativity shooting outside, but remembering to keep your eye on the light at all times will save hours of post production later.
9. One Man Band.
I love the atmosphere when we shoot with a big production team. Having so many creatives on site makes for a great shoot. But in natural light, crew size can be smaller. I recently did a test shoot with a model in leeds and i literally went on my own, with just a rucksak on my bag with lenses, cards and batteries . My own little one man band. Natural light allows the freedom to shrug off a large crew in favour of creating an intimate collaboration between photographer and model.
10. The Golden Hour
I have left this one til last because it. is. a. BIGGIE. The most glorious thing about shooting in daylight is those two little periods at the beginning and the end of the day. Sunrise and sunset can yield some of the most beautiful light. I will not profess to be an expert on the physics of the Golden Hour, but i can attest to its ease of shooting. The warm, soft light lowers the contrast of highlights and shadows and creates a misty feel. I would go even further, if the camera has the capability, and i would recommend shooting all the way through that sunset and right on after the sun has set and dusk has begun. Dusk and dawn light really is something to behold.
The shot above was taken as the sun was setting down really low. At this point the sky is very orange and the light is golden and still quite bright. Just a few moments later, the sun had completely set and i took the below image which is much softer, with a darker grey and blue toned background whilst still maintaining a soft orange tone to the light on the skin. You have to borderline the settings to get this result, but goodness its worth it.
So, maybe you are still firmly in the studio camp, but if you’re even slightly tempted, i hope you will venture outside and enjoy the glorious gift of our natural sunlight. I am hoping to get out there more in the summer months and shoot some airy portraits and fiery sunsets myself, so if you’re a model, creative or potential client reading this and you’re thinking about collaborating then get in touch and lets go outside!