The use of light in portrait photography

Portrait photography is a bread and butter pursuit for most photographers. You could make a decent amount of money every month shooting nothing but portraits in natural light. But the thing with portrait photography is that you need to have your key lights to be constant. At least for the entire duration of the shoot.

If the key light isn’t constant, you would have to go through the process of metering, adjusting the exposure, adjusting for the depth of field, dial in the white balance every ten minutes. This is especially important when you are shooting at dawn or dusk when the light changes dramatically over the period of one hour or so.

Natural light

natural light vs. artificial light

Ever since I actively stated pursuing photography, natural light has been my favorite light to shoot in. I shoot in the morning when the slanting light of the warm golden sun traverses across the earth. Then I shoot later in the afternoon to repeat the process for a slightly longer time frame. I stay back even after the sun is down so that I could take advantage of the blue hour. When it is overcast I would enjoy shooting the whole day because the light was consistent and wrapping the subject to produce beautiful portraits. I could talk about it whole day and never get tired of it.

The thing is natural light is something that I enjoyed working with. But as I progressed in my journey in photography I realized there was no way I could continue to improve if I relied on natural light all the time. I had to find a source of consistent lighting, predictable light. Something that wouldn’t change its nature as time progressed. I realized that I had to migrate to artificial lighting.

Advantages of natural light

It is not that natural light is all bad. In real life situations it is actually excellent to shoot with. It is inexpensive to work with, which is a big advantage. With natural light a lot of the basic parameters of composition, framing and focusing as well as posing is a lot easier to refine. You don’t have to get into the mental math of ratio between lights and metering and all that stuff. You have one light and that makes things kind of easy.

Disadvantages of Natural light

With natural light as our key light the light is never constant. Especially when you are shooting during the golden hour of the day. It is also true when you are shooting during the blue hour. And the basic requirement of portrait photography is that the key light should be constant at least for some period of time so that you can finish your shoot without constantly having to compensate for the changing light. Therein lies the problem

Let’s say that you are trying to make wedding portraits of the bride and the groom and then create some group photos of the bridal party. If the light changes, which it does, over the course of the shoot, you will have to adjust for it. If nothing else you will need to get a reference shot for the white balance. This is applicable regardless of whether you are shooting indoors or outdoors. With a constant key light source this is not a requirement.

Another problem of shooting portraits in natural light is you are limited by the elements of nature. Rain, fog, snow, hail or haze; you have to be prepared for anything and everything. Probably the only time when you don’t have to worry about these while using artificial light is when you are shooting by a large window.

Artificial light

natural light vs. artificial light

With artificial lights the first important advantage it brings to the table is that the light is constant. It saves a lot of time not having to meter or adjust for exposure after every ten minutes or so.

There are other advantages as well. With artificial lights you can reposition the light to suit your need. Something which is impossible when you are shooting with natural lights. With natural light you will have to move your talent around to find the optimum results and then set up your camera.

The third advantage of using artificial lights is that you have complete control over the amount of light that the artificial light source fires. Artificial lights come in various shapes and sizes. They are principally divided into two categories – continuous and strobes. Strobes are more difficult to manage, in the sense you don’t see what you get to capture until after you have captured the frame.

Continuous lights

With continuous lights you have the freedom to see how the image would turn up even before the shutter button is released. You can position the lights based on your exact requirements. With continuous lights it is always a much better and much easier approach.

Strobes

With strobes you will have to adopt a measured approach. With studio strobes your first order of business is to select the ISO and one of the two exposure parameters. Which is usually the shutter speed. You then use a light meter to meter the light and arrive at the aperture. If both aperture and shutter speed is important than from the base exposure you continue to adjust the power of the light till your required aperture is achieved.

Use of light shapers

natural light vs. artificial light

Another advantage of using artificial lights over natural light is in the number of light shapers that you can use. Strobes and continuous lights are compatible with multitude of light shapers. Different shapes, sizes, use of baffles, reflecting material and so on.

With natural light you are limited to a few options only. A screen perhaps would be useful for reducing the intensity of the light. A reflector is another option that could be used. It has dual purpose. You can choose to reflect some light back on to your talent’s face or the under chin areas with it. In that capacity it acts as your fill light. This is what photographers use when they are shooting with the sun behind the back of their talent.

In the second capacity the reflector acts as a shade creator. This is what you would use when shooting under the mid-day sun with no shade around. You would ask an assistant to hold a large reflector over the head of your talent to produce shade.

Mixing artificial and natural light

Most pros routinely do that, i.e., mix artificial and natural light. The reason is natural light is extremely beautiful at certain times of the day. When used properly along with artificial light the result is a lot punchier than simply using natural or artificial light. For example when you shoot at the golden hour you can meter for the ambient light and then add the artificial light to illuminate the talent’s / model’s face.

natural light vs. artificial light

Similarly at the blue hour of the day, the ambient light of the sky along with the right shutter speed encapsulating any artificial light in the scene (tail lights or vehicles, light from distant buildings etc.) produces an interesting canvas. Then when you fire the artificial light on your talent you bring him / her into emphasis and complete the composition.

Background

A critical aspect of shooting with artificial vs natural lighting is the background. Not many experts do talk about this. Natural light forces you to shoot in outdoor environments, at least half of the time. That invariably means you are forced to use backgrounds that are not the usual printed backdrop in your studio. Needless to say that does have both advantages and disadvantages.

On some instances the background would be extremely beautiful, in which case you can incorporate it in your images by using a small aperture and a large depth of field. On some instances the background could be downright uninspiring and best blurred out.

In a studio environment, a typical artificial lighting scenario, you select the background. It matches with the theme of your shot. There is a complete control over it.

So which is better natural or artificial light?

natural light vs. artificial light

It is difficult to say that one is better than the other. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. With artificial lighting you can adjust the light position, ratio of power between each light to create depth and dimension in your photos. That can be a bit difficult with natural light.

With artificial light you have the result in your control. With natural light results can sometimes be unpredictable unless you can anticipate and then accordingly dial in the right settings.

Natural light is way more powerful and there are certain genres of photography that cannot be shot without natural light (or the absence of it). For example you cannot hope to shoot landscape photos without natural light. You cannot shoot star trails or Milky Way photo either.

A lot of photographers shoot only with natural light, myself included (at least at the start of my career). It costs nothing to use.

Ben Novoselsky

Ben Novoselsky

CEO and Founder at Phowd.com
Entrepreneur, geek, photo enthusiast.
Ben Novoselsky

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