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Portrait Photography Lighting - When Not To Use "Natural Light"

My simple answer when people ask if I ever shoot "Natural Light" portraits is, pretty much never. This is for several reasons which can be due to time, technical factors but mostly for aesthetic reasons. Below I'll go through some of these factors and explain why it's just not for me. Can you spot the Natural light image in the 3 below?

(It was the the 3rd one.)

Let me get one thing off my chest before I get into the details of using different light sources. I've never been a fan of the term "Natural Light". So, below I'm going to refer to it as "Available Light". Do people shoot only Natural Light from the sun, yes of course, but most of the time I believe people are referring to Available Light, which would include other light sources around, such as outdoor lighting, indoor lighting and other available light sources possibly mixed with light shaping tools, when they are taking their photo. Lights running off electricity isn't really natural, and neither is a scrim for diffusing the light or a reflector for bouncing light, so I just prefer the term available.

When photographing portraits, the first thing I'm looking to do is highlight the best features of the subject. This is different for each person. It's something based on the bone structure of each person. Some people have eyes that are set back, maybe a larger nose, smaller chin, wrinkles or whatever, and figuring out how to downplay or highlight certain features to make each person look amazing is all about knowing light, understanding how it reacts on a facial structure and controlling it using soft or hard techniques. Knowing all of this helps inform where I think light coming from will work best for each subject.

This is the main issue with relying on available light. It doesn't allow me to control these types of light on the face or highlight anything. Can you have great light on the face from available light, of course, but I typically shoot in times that aren't always optimal for having access to the perfect light. So, relying on that would be a waste of my time.

The next reason I don't rely on available light is because a long time ago I was on a photo walk and one of the guides was teaching an on location, single light portrait session, and said something that has always stuck with me. They said, and I'm paraphrasing, that "if you only shoot natural light, how will you distinguish your work from anyone else?" It has always just stuck with me. Lighting people, food and any other subject allows me to create something that no one else will be able to replicate. It makes my work unique to me. Making photos that are not natural looking is almost more satisfying to me than mixing lighting with natural to make a beautiful portrait.

One of the final reasons that I love to photograph portraits with lighting is to create a mood that may or may not be available to me in the location I'm on. I can give a specific mood to a scene without relying on light that may or may not be interesting or beautiful to begin with. Especially when a scene may look better with a different style of light.

With all of that said, it did take a while for me to find my style and hit my stride with my lighting techniques. And, I do occasionally rely on available light if I see the light looking amazing. I just don't ever count on it. And even if I'm using it, it's usually tweaked with something like a scrim that helps to shape the light in the way I want it.

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