There are lots of photographers out there who advertise themselves as ‘natural light photographers’. Sounds nice and all, but I don’t recommend you go down the path of committing yourself to be a natural light photographer. I would especially not recommend it if you intend on doing it in a more professional capacity. Don’t get me wrong, you can take a plethora of gorgeous, stunning, 100% professional magazine quality photos. Natural light offers phenomenal opportunities for creating beautiful photographs. But not all the time, and not in a lot of situations.
Natural Light Photography Can Be Boring
There are a lot of photographers out there who make a living taking photos outside or just using light coming through a window. I find many of them have very similar looking images throughout their portfolio. If you think about it the answer is simple. There is only so much you can do with one unmovable light source. Of course you can use deflectors and diffusers and get creative with it, but only to a certain point. You cannot have complete variety when you don’t have complete control.
When Natural Light Photography Doesn’t Work
If you shoot o’naturel you are bound to run into problems at one point. Your biggest enemy is the sun. It can be a giant pain in your ass if it doesn’t cooperate, which usually it doesn’t. You are limited by the times of the day you can shoot. If you do shoot outside ideally you want to shoot in early mornings or later in the day when the sky isn’t high in the sky. Otherwise it can make for some very unattractive lighting. Midday you have to battle some harsh shadows on subjects. The other issue with that is trying to schedule around the sun. I don’t know a lot of models that love waking up early and are at their best to shoot in the wee hours of morning. Frankly as a photographer I need to be at my most energetic during a shoot, and getting out of bed to prep can be a pain. In evenings it can be a race against time to get the shots you want as the sun sets. The other reason the sun is a pain for photographers is because you can’t move it. Unfortunately for us, the giant ball of burning gas can’t be moved to the other side of the city sky-scape so we can get a prettier shot of my subject at the time we are shooting. We have to work around the sun the best we can and sometimes that means sacrificing a beautiful background so we can properly expose our subjects.
Off Camera Flash – Your Saviour
Thus was invented flash, or some form of other lighting. Someone had the bright idea (pun intended) that we can just make our own sun and control it how we want. You have lots of different lighting options available to help you create the look you want. That’s the key to off camera lighting. You can control the light however you want to get the exact look you want. You control the light that falls on your subject as well as controlling the ambient light in and around your subject. You can shoot in any condition and adjust the lighting to compensate for the nasty sun. You can shoot in areas you thought were unshootable. A big bonus is you can properly expose your photo without losing quality/crispness due to needing a high ISO. With lighting you can keep a lower ISO and create less grainy images in low light areas.
Why Natural Light Photographers Don’t Use Lighting
There are lots of factors why people choose to shoot with natural light. Likely the biggest reason is they can take the shots they want without the need for it. For many photog’s purposes they get what they need in shady areas on bright days, or maybe they are able to use a diffuser. For some they don’t take a lot of photos and can wait until conditions are appropriate enough to shoot. It works ‘enough’ of the time. Another huge reason is cost. Photography equipment in general can be insanely expensive. Little pieces of plastic, rubber, or paper somehow end up being hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars. For the average enthusiast buying intense lighting equipment is just not an option for them. Lastly, is the learning curve (This section will probably p^$# some people off). Knowing basic settings for a good photograph is digestible enough. With proper control of ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture you should be able to create quality photography. If you add external lighting to that it becomes a whole different beast. Depending on the type of lighting, the amount of lights, the set up, and modifying of lights it can get complicated pretty quickly. Many photographers don’t want to learn all of those extra things. They are happy enough with the shots they take and defend natural light photography as more pure and realistic etc… Some suggesting it takes more skill to just use variations of natural light to get a good photo, rather than relying on other equipment. That can be true to a point. But in order to craft the type of image you want at any time in any place you need to know how to use off camera lighting.
Learning Curve for Lighting
Much like learning the basics of photography, the use of off camera lighting requires research and a lot of trial and error. Not only do you learn how to light different situations, but also you can possibly find a style you like. Sometimes you find a lighting style you fall in love with for a while that can set you apart from others. The beauty there is you can always learn new techniques and different ways to light the exact same thing so your work will always be new and fresh.
In A Nutshell
Knowing how to light a subject or scene using only existing light is an important skill for every photographer. Knowing how to adapt to every lighting situation with tools and your disposal to create the perfect photo you envisioned is what will take you to the next level.