Natural light vs studio lighting

When starting photography, I came to understand there are 3 types of photographers. Natural light photographers, studio lighting photographers, and the ones that master both. Natural light vs studio lighting has a long history with photographers everywhere.

I started as a natural light photographer shooting wide open all the time with my Sony a7 w/ the Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens. I loved the bokeh and the separation it gave me at f/1.8.

After about a year, I started dabbling with off-camera flash. Speedlights first and working with HSS (High-Speed Sync). Then I made the move into larger studio strobes. 2 years into my photography and I find there are some pretty distinct advantages and disadvantages to both styles.

Natural Light Benefits

  1. Shoot outdoors – Shooting in natural light gives me awesome lifestyle photos both indoors and outdoors. I can go exploring in downtown Dallas and find some great locations using only the daylight.
  2. Soft lighting in mornings and evenings – The early morning and evenings provide some of the best times to shoot outdoors in the natural light. The sun is very low and provides a soft glow for the shoots.
  3. Golden hour shoots – Evening time is extra special because of golden-hour. This is around sunset when the sun is very low on the horizon and provides beautiful sunset colors in the sky.
  4. Requires less equipment – I can grab my camera and go without worrying about hauling around extra equipment. Sometimes less is more, and I like to shoot with minimal gear on my shoulders or in my bag.
  5. Huge window lights – I know many professional photographers who use large windows to let in soft natural light for indoor portrait shoots. You can control the natural light with diffusers or white curtains over the windows.

Natural Light disadvantages

  1. Harsh Light – Shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is directly above will give you weird shadows on your models face or body. We call this raccoon eyes on the face. The best thing to do is work your model in a mode shaded area to provide more even lighting for your shoot.
  2. Weather can be unpredictable – You never know if the weather will be rain or shine. It seems like it changes constantly. Be prepared to adapt to weather conditions in your area if you are only using natural outdoor daylight for your portrait shoot.
  3. Inconsistent lighting – Shooting at different times of the day outdoors or indoors is going to provide different lighting based on the sun’s location. Be aware of the time of day, and be prepared to adjust your shoot accordingly.

Studio light benefits

  1. Complete control of light source – Shooting with strobes allows you to dial in the exact power of lights and control the settings of your camera for any shoot. Using a light meter you can dial your lighting to any specific style of shooting.
  2. Adding modifiers – You can purchase different types of lighting modifiers such as softboxes, umbrellas and beauty dishes for your strobes. This will help shape the light for all your studio shoots.
  3. Can be done indoors or outdoors – There are lighting setups that can be used for indoor and outdoor shoots. You can use speedlights or HSS strobes to overpower the sun and create beautiful daytime photos outdoors.
  4. HSS allows for different lighting effects – High-Speed Sync is the ability to use a specific flash at a higher shutter speed. Normal strobes of camera sync speeds are around 1/160 sec, but with High-Speed Sync, you can bring your shutter to faster speeds to cut down on ambient lights, but let in off camera flash lighting.

Studio light disadvantages

  1. More equipment to take with you – Keep in mind you will need a few extra items for outdoor shoots especially to protect your equipment. Make sure to have some sandbags available to hold keep your light stands from falling over in the wind.
  2. Not as portable – Some strobes have interchangeable batteries, but some require heavy external battery packs. This can make changing locations a little more of a hassle, but it can be done.
  3. Longer setup times – When getting into studio or on-location, you will need some additional time for setup and teardown of your equipment. Make sure to also figure in time to dial in your lights for correct exposures.

Which do I prefer

When considering both options, I really do like shooting natural light more often than studio lighting. This is a personal preference and it is an easy choice for me. I started with natural light in my TFP portrait photography shoots. Everyone has a unique style and lighting will always play a huge part in that style.

I like to just grab a small backpack and go shoot without carrying more equipment than I need. This keeps me inconspicuous and keeps less attention on me or my model.

Discover which lighting is better suited for your style by going out and practicing in all types of light. Rent some equipment inline if you want to try out new things first. This is the best way to find what works for you. As always, happy shooting!