Tips + Techniques

4 Misconceptions of Shooting Natural Portraits with Artificial Light

February 21, 2019

By Sandra Coan

© Sandra Coan

I've come to prefer using strobes to natural light as I love the consistency and the tones. The image on the left was captured with strobe, the image on the right was captured with natural light.

I’ve been a professional photographer for almost 20 years, and most of that time, I worked exclusively with natural light.

I used to tell myself, and others, that I preferred natural light because of its look—it’s soft and, well, natural. But the truth is, I used natural light exclusively because I didn’t know how to use artificial lighting, and the thought of it scared me to death.

I had a lot of misunderstood notions about strobes and flash. The biggest ones? They’re technically too difficult, limiting to my work and too expensive for me and my small business. I also believed that studio lighting looked harsh and “flashy.” I wanted soft and pretty.

If you share any of those beliefs, know that you are not alone. A lot of photographers do. Let me share what I’ve come to realize since learning how to use artificial lighting, and perhaps I can change your mind.

Misconception #1: “Lighting is hard.”

It’s not. In fact, you already know most of what you need to know to get started. Why? Because, to put it simply, light is light. If you can work with the sun shining through a window, you can work with a bulb shining through a softbox. The same rules apply.

All you need to learn is what the different kinds of modifiers do, what lighting equipment to buy, how to set it up and how to adjust the power on the lights to create the look you want. And all of that is pretty easy to learn!

TIP: Try to think of your strobe and softbox as a portable window—as in, think of how you would light your subject with window light and use your studio lighting setup in the same way.

lighting tips artificial light natural light

I love photographing movement in my studio, and using artificial light helps me capture spontaneous moments without much motion blur.

Misconception #2: “You can’t be spontaneous when using lighting.”

This was my biggest worry and something that kept me from using lighting for years. You see, I work with kids. And kids run and jump and move. A lot. I wanted to be able to capture that movement, and I was worried that using lights would limit my ability to do so.

Now, I know that I can still capture kids being kids while using studio lighting. In fact, using the lights makes it easier! The flash freezes movement so I can capture a kid in mid-run or jump and not get very much motion blur, if any at all.

TIP: Bouncing your strobe or flash off of a window will create a “window light look” while eliminating the need for a large modifier.  Less equipment allows for more room for kids to run and jump.

[Not sure how to bounce light? Check out my free guide!]

Misconception #3: “Getting started with studio lighting is expensive.”

This is a worry I had in the beginning as well. But truthfully, you can get an entire lighting setup without breaking the bank. In fact, the first lighting set I invested in cost me under $300.

To stay within your budget, look for used gear and only buy what you need. Everything I shoot is done with one light, one light modifier and one stand. Not a ton of equipment. Keeping it simple will help keep costs down.

TIP: If you want to create a natural light look, invest in the biggest modifier you can afford. The bigger the modifier, the softer the light. And soft light looks natural.

lighting tips artificial studio light imitating natural light

My clients often assume that I’m a natural light photographer because of the soft look of my images.

Misconception #4: “Artificial lighting looks fake, and I want soft and natural.”

This is the biggest lighting myth around. When done right, strobes and flash can look as soft and beautiful as natural light. The trick is to turn your lights down low, which will give your light that soft, window light look.

Just remember to meter, just like you would if you were working with a window, and then adjust your power until you are at the settings you desire.

TIP: If you are going to be shooting with off-camera lighting, be sure to check your camera’s sync speed—that’s the fastest shutter speed recommended for your camera when working with a flash of any kind.

If you are ready to learn more about studio lighting, be sure to come to WPPI 2019 where I’ll be teaching “Creating a Natural Light Look with Artificial Lighting.” See you there!

Sandra Coan is an industry educator and award-winning newborn and family photographer specializing in studio portraiture, artificial lighting and fine-art film photography.


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