Have you heard someone use the phrase “Natural Light Photographer?” If you google it, you’ll read some very strong opinions. I don’t want to get into the style debate that so many have, but I bring it up only to discuss the oh-so-important topic of lighting. I could write a novel on lighting, but this post will be sort of like an overview/intro.
I’ll set the scene for you… I had a photo shoot all scheduled and ready to go. Family portraits of a beautiful family. We were going to go to downtown Baton Rouge and start shooting about an hour before sunset. Perfect client, perfect weather, perfect scheduling, perfect… literally… everything!
Until <insert dramatic music> here comes Hurricane Ida barreling towards our great state. Not so perfect conditions anymore so we agree to reschedule. We are all busy, but we managed to reschedule for an hour session on a Sunday afternoon. We couldn’t do it around sunset when the lighting would be best though… that would be too easy! The only time we all had available was 2pm, and guess what… not a cloud in the sky. The sun was just overhead and extremely harsh.
I had to ask myself that given the conditions… what would an “only” natural light photographer do? A few possibilities:
Not do the shoot because of “bad available lighting” (risk losing a client)
Only shoot in the shade (doable but limiting)
Bring assistants and reflectors (the right answer) or
Take bad photos (never advisable).
Unfortunately, most often I see and hear about 1, 2 and 4, and rarely 3.
So, to circle back on the general topic here. You’ll hear me say repeatedly about how Photography is a lot like engineering. Every situation and every photograph within that situation is a technical challenge unto its own and must be solved. I’ll focus more on shutter speed, aperture, exposure, ISO, etc. all later, as those are all very technical variables in the equations. But ultimately light is the problem. Light is the answer. Light is what must be solved. Without light there is no photography! And you know what? It’s difficult.
So why are there so many “Natural Light Photographers?” I think for two reasons:
Marketing. It sounds wholesome, organic, and trendy. It sounds like they are harnessing what nature provides and not injecting anything else foreign into the scene.
It’s cheaper and easier. Less equipment to buy, less to learn how to use, less to master, less to carry around, less to setup, and one less variable in the equation.
Am I knocking Natural Light Photographers? No way! Honestly, some of the best photographers I have studied have used only natural light. But they fully understand it. They are masters of their craft, and using the right tools of the trade, their immense knowledge and artistic abilities can essentially shape the natural light around their scene, instead of having the light dictate the scene for them!
Ultimately our job as a photographer is to provide the best possible photographs to our clients. No. Matter. What. Conditions be damned.
So what did I do? I did the shoot. I used a #Westcott FJ400 monolight (simple terms: an amazing, powerful, off-camera flash). It’s strong enough to basically overpower the sun. It gives me the ability to shoot in any light anywhere and to shape the scene exactly as I want it. In the same day I used it to overpower the sun in one shoot, and used it with a fast shutter speed to create a dark background and dramatic basketball portraits in a well-lit gym in a second shoot.
The gist of this post… If you’re a professional or aspiring photographer, you will be immensely more valuable to your clients if you can harness the power of all light (both natural and <gasp> artificial). If you want to be solely a natural light photographer, just know that to do it correctly takes immense knowledge and talent. Don’t be the one that thinks it’s a shortcut.
If you’re looking to hire a photographer, ask them about lighting. Ask them what they would do if the subject is backlit (like if you wanted a portrait of someone with a sunset in the
background). Ask them what they would do if they were shooting in an open field at high noon. You’ll likely get either a wonderful immediate response or a deer-in-the-headlights look. If you don’t want to ask tough questions, then just look for these things in their portfolio.
Ultimately, lighting is one of the two most important aspects of photography and can be highly technical. What’s the second one, you ask? Well, that will be my next blog post! Stay tuned!